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State clam plan soundly thrashed

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By Lou Elliott Jones

The message from small clam farmers to the state official overseeing a plan to expand leases in state waters was clear: We don't want it. 

Kal Knickerbocker, the director of the state Department of Aquaculture, opened a June 13 meeting at the George Kirkpatrick Building in Cedar Key with clam farmers and at least one wholesaler, saying, “Our purpose here today is to hear comments so we understand what you want.”

He added later, “We're not here to make decisions today.” He explained that a decision will be made by the state  Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund. The Board of Trustees is made up of Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. 

The state is proposing to add 157 leases, 2 acres each for 10-contracts, and in addition is swapping an approximately 5-acre perpetual lease for about 20 acres. Clammers, in discussions with state planners, had indicated they only wanted a limited number of new leases and they wanted clammers who hold unproductive leases to be able to turn them back to the state and get new ones.

But the state is asking those farmers with unproductive leases to shoulder the cost and work of cleaning up their old lease before getting a new one, something some leaseholders attending the meeting did not like. 

What the approximately 50 small farmers said in a show of hands is they do not want expansion and they do not like the state's deal with Clamtastic to trade a perpetual lease for more acreage on a 10-year lease.  

The plan is unlikely to get support from the area's legislators. 

State Rep. Charlie Stone of Ocala (R-District 21) said, “I wouldn't support an expansion.” 

Two aides to state Sen. Charlie Dean of Inverness (R-District 3) did not speak, but their presence spoke volumes to the clammers. 

In addition, the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association is against the state's plan and the Levy County Commission went on record on June 4 as opposing the state plan. 

The meeting grew heated at times as clammers and wholesaler Chris Topping and his partners at Clamtastic Seafood Inc. swapped charges and denials about who was keeping dock prices at the historic low of 7 cents per clam and who was farming outside their designated lease. Topping denied being responsible for the low prices that there was other competition. “Your main competition isn't Clamtastic; it's Virginia.”

Topping said he is a businessman trying to grow business and take care of his producers.  

Knickerbocker explained that the state was doing something new in creating  “conceptual area” where it plats out sites for clam farming but does not lease out the area until later. “Here's a spot, it's good for clamming. That's a conceptual area. So everyone knows for the future it's there,” Knickerbocker said. He said platting out all the possible leases now, will save on having to do the mapping out over and over when new leases are being made available. 

 He said the state has been cleaning out the waiting list for clam leases and said in the future the will not be a waiting list. 

The issue of the perpetual lease swap for la larger amount of land on a 10 year lease was a touchy one as City Commissioner Sue Colson asked Knickerbocker,” Did you try to talk them down?”

Knichkerbocker said no. 

Clammer Mike Hodges asked, “So you're planning on implementing that?”

“Yes,” said Knickerbocker. 

Hodges and the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association have been rallying to stop the state's planned expansion. And he explained to Knickerbocker that clammers are not able to survive on 7 cents per clam when it costs at least 5 cents to “grow 'em out” to a sellable size. 

Several of those in attendance said they were leaving their clams to die on the leases rather than sell them at that price. 

Hodges' wife, Anna White Hodges, spoke for the farmers when she said, “People are flooding the market with clams. … We're small farmers and we can't sell.” 

One farmer had two suggestions: Cedar Key's clams need to be certified organic and the state needs to spend more money marketing CK clams, He said the state needs to dispel the public's fears about eating clams from Cedar Key due to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill two years ago. The spill was never closer than 240 miles to Cedar Key according to reports at the time. 

Knickerbocker said, “They're working on that. There's wheels out there that are turning on that.”

At one point Anna White Hodges asked, “Why is it as an industry we can't come together. Why is it Tallahassee can't get it?”