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State official to meet with clammers Thursday in CK

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County Commission on record against lease expansion

By Lou Elliott Jones

Clammers who asked for the Levy County Commission's help two weeks ago to halt a state plan for expanding clam leases have not only won the support of the commissioners, but the attention of a state official overseeing the lease proposal.

Mike Hodges of the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association has announced that Kal Knicherbocker, the director of the state Department of Aquaculture, will be on hand for a meeting Thursday at 2 p.m. at the George Kirkpatrick Marine Lab building on State Road 24. 

Hodges said in a telephone interview that it was Knickerbocker who contacted the association and requested the meeting. 

In a posting on Facebook, Hodges urged CK clammers to attend the meeting to be heard. 

The letter of objection by the commission did not come about easily as some supporters threw a monkey wrench into the discussion.

Commission Chair Ryan Bell of Chiefland (R-District 4) who has Cedar Key in his district said he received several calls saying that although the state has mapped out underwater lands for new clam leases, the matter must still be approved by a 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. 

Two weeks ago, members of the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association asked the commissioners for a resolution objecting to a state plan to increase the number of 2-acre clam leases by 157. They said they had asked for an expansion of the bottom lands to provide clam farmers who had non-productive leases a way to turn them back to the state and get more productive areas. But the state plan called for more than the recommended 45 leases and those with bad leases would be competing with others in a random lottery for leases. 

Leslie Sturmer, Levy County Aquaculture Extension agent, told the commission that the clam industry in Cedar Key has a $35 million impact on the economy and is a top producer of clams for the country. 

But, she said, clam prices are at historic lows and it is not a good time for such a large expansion. 

Bell said the callers, whom he did not name, said he got calls from people in favor of the plan around 5 p.m. on Monday which “does not give you a lot of time to do my homework.”

“This is a really big deal and my problem is I am not an aquaculturist,” Bell said. But the commission was faced with a three-day deadline to get any objections in to the trustees reviewing the plan in Tallahassee. “This does throw a kink in it for me.”

He said the state was not expanding the clam leases all at once, but in three tiers, Bell said. “My gut tells me when you guys, being from Levy  and you know I say 'Who are these guys from Tallahassee to tell us what we are going to do?”

Commissioner John Meeks of Bronson (R-District 1), who made the motion to approve the resolution with the commission's objection to the state plan, said, “I would like to see what the state produced, presented to the aquaculture association.” The group, which represents most clam farmers, said they met with state officials and the plan devised by the state was not what the clammers had sought. 

Rose Cantwell who is on the board of the association, said 65 percent of the members voted against the state's lease proposal. “We have never been opposed to expanding.” She said they wanted the expansion in phases. 

Richard Viele, a clam farmer from Cedar Key, said,” There were a few individuals that wanted some leases. They wanted a little more room.” He said wholesalers wanted to open up more lands. 

“It needs to be controlled — this expansion,” he said.

“The state just all of a sudden laid it wide open.. And the state is asking what you think bout it,” he told the commission. “We w somebody in control who can add as needed without doubling the acreage.”

He said if the total expansion goes ahead the market will fail and “there will be a number of people who will abandon their clam leases and there will be nothing worse where you have changed the structure of the bottom.”

Viele said,” Don't get the idea that we're trying to prevent anybody from growing. We just want to have some input with the state as a collective association. This is what we stared the association for.”

Clam farmer Mike Hodges of Cedar Key said, “Over the last 10-12 years we've gotten good at growing clams and overproduced. We started at 15 cents for the dock price and now we're at 7.

“We got clams laying in our leases dying because we can't sell them.”

He said businesses with more resources “want to increase their bottom because they have control of the market. We've got several large wholesalers that's wanting to expand. These big guys who have moved in and they want to grow their businesses. They don't care about the small guy.

“The state should be more sensitive and aware of what our needs are. We should go out and tell them.”

Hodges said he plans to attend the trustees meeting the third week of June and present his case to them.