Working on the half-shell: Efforts to restore nature's best pollution filters
Florida’s estuaries once teemed with clams, oysters and other bivalves that helped keep waters clean and seagrasses healthy. By the mid-20th century, only a fraction of the state’s vast shellfish beds and reefs remained. Can a small clam make a big difference in serious water pollution hotspots like the Indian River Lagoon?
Blair Wiggins bought his first outboard motor at the age of 10. Small as a weed-wacker engine, it powered his 12-foot Jon boat. He bought the motor for $55 with money he earned mowing his neighbor’s yard.
When he toted around his dad’s five-weight fly rod, the grown-ups told him he “ain’t gonna catch nothing.” And yet, Wiggins returned from the bays and estuaries near his home with bucketsful of sea trout.
“Where’d you catch all them fish?” they’d ask. “I can’t catch them with a fly rod,” he replied. “Bye.”
Wiggins was a fishing guide for a dozen years, poling his flats boat and pointing out flopping trout, redfish and mullet. Then for 23 years, he starred in a TV show called “Addictive Fishing,” produced by childhood friend Kevin McCabe. Wiggins first screen-tested the show in his son’s kindergarten class. The jabbering children hushed to watch.
“From age seven to 70, we had an audience,” Wiggins said, and he still does. His show evolved into “Blair Wiggins Outdoors,” streamed on Bally Sports Sun and YouTube. Kids still scramble up to him and elders doggedly hobble over for photos.
When he hooks a fish on TV, Wiggins famously hollers, “There he is!” He calls prize catches “mogans,” mixing the Southern nickname “biggans” and the Northern vernacular, “monsters.”
Over the decades, the mogans became harder to find. As Wiggins hauled fish out of the Indian River Lagoon, he observed the coastal ecosystem changing. First came the vanishing critters. As a kid, Wiggins recalled, he encountered millions of fragile starfish dotting Parris Island channels. “I haven’t seen one in 30 years,” he said.
The same holds true for seagrass, shellfish, horseshoe crabs, sea trout and mullet. Wading near the South Banyan Isles and Pineda, scraggly seagrass scratched his little-boy legs like prairie grass, and fanned out just as far. Brevard County was known as the sea trout capital of the world, Wiggins said. “You could go out off of any given dock, any bank, throw out a shrimp on a popping cork and catch a trout anywhere in Brevard County.”
When the seagrasses first disappeared, it was a little easier to fish—the trout were stark in the waters. Today, it’s tough to find them at all, he said.
In the past, hundreds of mullet would leap out of the water in a five-minute span. The splashes are now silent.
Nearly a half a century after he bought that tiny outboard, and more than two decades after he became a TV fishing star, Wiggins is moving into his third act. Rather than extracting marine life from his childhood waters, he is putting it back. He and fellow citizens along the Indian River coast are planting millions of hard clams, part of burgeoning initiatives across Florida to reintroduce historic shellfish to clean up waterways and restore life up the food chain.
Oysters and hard clams, cradled in their self-built shells, clean water as they develop. Clams gobble algae through a siphon and expel feces, a fertilizer for seagrass and food for shrimp. Once they’re settled on the bottom, they clasp sea grass, rooting it into the soil. Each clam filters 20 gallons of water a day. Reintroducing shellfish to waterways is a natural solution, a return.
Death by 1,000 cuts
Quahog clams once thrived throughout Florida’s coastlines. Native American mounds along the Spruce Creek reveal an abundance of oysters and clams, along with saltwater fish. But by the 21st century, the populations were devastated. Todd Osborne, a researcher at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, calls it death by 1,000 cuts.
As the four-mile Pineda Causeway was built in 1973, carving into the Indian River and Banana River lagoons, Blair Wiggins and his father chugged along south across from Patrick Air Force Base. The pair glared at the hulk of concrete. “Take a good look around son,” his father said. “Because there’s the beginning of the end.”
“He was right,” said Cari Wiggins, Blair’s wife and the director of “Blair Wiggins Outdoors.”
The Pineda Causeway was one of 13 causeways constructed across the Indian River Lagoon. Around the state, the raised roads choke water flow by creating a narrow opening. The bottleneck impedes water exchange and marine life migration. Pockets of decaying matter gather in its corners, fueling algal blooms. Blair calls them: “dams with roads on top.”
“They funneled into a small opening and everything quit moving,” Cari Wiggins said. “Water is not going to want to flow sideways.”
The collapse of clams can also be traced to the commercial shellfish industry. At its peak in the 1980s and ‘90s, semi-trucks idled at boat ramps to pick up croker bags of native clams.
The intense harvesting was the “nail in the coffin” for wild clam populations, Osborne said. He estimates harvesting data only cover a third of actual numbers because cash was involved.
Osborne said at the peak, the wild clam harvest was like the Wild West; clammers collected the shelled critters in the thousands. Unload. Get paid. Do it again.
“The clam boats that you saw, you could have lined them up side by side and walked to Merritt Island,” Cari Wiggins said.
Hard clams burrow in seagrass. As the clammers dragged spiked clam rakes along the bottom, they inadvertently dredged up seagrass and crushed the smallest clams and horseshoe crabs.
“Every morning I would get up and go to the boat ramp, literally it was a sea of grass floating on top of the water from where they had been digging with their rakes,” Blair said.
Pollution is another part of the complexity of harm. It flows from industries and local backyards into the water. Synthetic fertilizers and septic tanks are two of the culprits.
“We’ve engineered a really beautiful and safe human landscape.” Osborne said. “We’ve also engineered a very efficient way of poisoning the lagoon with excessive nutrients.”
While shellfish filter the water, larval clams are especially sensitive to pollution and cannot ingest it, said Mike Sullivan, who owns a St. Augustine shellfish farm and seafood market/restaurant called Commander’s Shellfish Camp.
Clams, Sullivan said, are like canaries in coal mines for the sea.
“Clams die if the water quality is bad or is getting bad. They can’t survive,” he said. “That’s why they’re not repopulating in a lot of these areas that have been fished out.”
Sullivan is the largest clam producer on the east coast of Florida, with about 75% of the region’s “clam leases” that the state administers for inshore coastal waters, according to the marine scientist Mark Martindale, director of the Whitney Laboratory.
Coastal water pollution has reached the point in Florida that not many waterways remain safe enough to grow hard clams for people to eat. Along the Northeast Florida coast, Sullivan’s spot on the Matanzas River is one of the few.
A meeting of the minds between scientists and locals who’ve fished the waters longer than it takes to earn a PhD led to a promising solution for what ails the Indian River Lagoon. Restore the shellfish even if people can’t eat them. Reintroduce thousands and millions.
Restoring the once plentiful shellfish, Osborne and Wiggins conclude, would represent a major step toward renewing clean water.
A bottom-up approach to clean water
The Indian River Lagoon Clam Restoration Initiative began as a grassroots movement.
“We had an idea, and a network of people that came together to say, OK, let’s just do it, and see what happens.’ And we got attention, and it was working,” Osborne said. “And then the money came, so it has definitely been a bottom-up approach.”
Partners including the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) provide staff, scientific oversight, boats and permitting. In 2019, EPA’s National Estuary Program awarded additional support. Every 10 cents puts another clam in the water, Osborne said. But what’s crucial about the project, he said, is that the public is the main stakeholder.
“It’s more important that the people that live here and experience this every day, are front and center,” Osborne said. “Because you don’t need someone from Tallahassee telling you what to do over here.”
Living on the river is much more motivating than a remote vision, he explained.
Beginning in 2019, scientists collected hard clams from Mosquito Lagoon. Osborne describes them as “super clams,” because they had survived both brown tide and toxic algae bloom crises.
“They are adapted to this ecosystem as it is now,” Osborne said.
At the Whitney Lab’s bivalve hatchery in St. Augustine, scientists began spawning the clams and raising them in a nursery that spring. After nine months, when the clams were about the size of golf balls, scientists and volunteers released them into the Mosquito and Indian River lagoons.
The clams are grown on licensed shellfish aquaculture leases; Blair is among those who offer lease space. Nets shield the clams from predators like stingrays, though Florida crown conchs that also love to eat them occasionally drill through. The conchs can devour 20 percent of the clams on a bed.
Cedar Key’s model, 'Clamelot'
Across Florida on the rural Gulf of Mexico Nature Coast, a gravestone stands outside city hall in the tiny fishing village of Cedar Key. Etched in gray are the words: “In loving memory dedicated to the commercial net fishermen of this community.” The gravestone was erected on July 1, 1995, the summer after Florida’s voters banned gill-net fishing by constitutional amendment. The vote followed a major push by sport fishers to stop commercial netting they said was harming fish populations, though researchers later found that the campaign had been misrepresented. The few fishing villages left in Florida, including Cedar Key, seemed doomed to lose a way of life.
Instead, a rebound emerged. Federally funded job retraining converted net fishers and others put out of work by the ban to become clam farmers. Leslie Sturmer, a shellfish extension specialist, relocated to Cedar Key to assist. Locals accepted the practice, she said, as the technology is simple, maintenance is low and the relatively clean coastal waters are perfect for clams.
Cedar Key launched the first clam aquaculture leases on Florida’s Gulf coast. The legacy began. Now, the town, located about 60 miles west of Gainesville, provides some 90% to 95% of Florida’s eating clams. The clams are cultured in water-side clam shacks and planted on the lease sites around the Cedar Key coast. The booming industry, which Sturmer calls “Clamelot” after the legendary Camelot, provides a local incentive for keeping water clean.
The clams in the Indian River Lagoon, on the other hand, aren’t edible. The water quality is too poor, Blair said, and the pollution pulses through these filter feeders.
“Eventually down the line, I would love to be able to go out there and harvest a five-gallon bucket of clams, come back and then have a great clam bake at the house like I used to,” Blair said, “but until it gets right and we get our clams and our water back, the farm-raised clams are good enough for me.”
Seeding hope in seeding clams
This spring, wading outside the River Rocks Restaurant in Rockledge, volunteers poured 100,000 hard clams from red-ribbed bags into the Indian River Lagoon.
The shards collected across the sand, crunching beneath feet. “This is how the Indian River Lagoon used to feel,” Blair said.
The River Rocks spot is among hundreds carefully chosen in the region. When people go out for lunch there, they can see the restoration project’s placard and poles in the water or spot volunteers slugging around bags of clams.
“We wanted to engage the public so that they could see what we were doing,” Osborne said.
The area was a former productive aquaculture lease, with clam shell remnants speckling the shoreline. The scientists replant clams where they once lived.
Across the state in southwest Florida, Sarasota Bay Watch follows a similar strategy. The nonprofit began releasing scallops into the bay in 2009. However, the sensitive scallops couldn’t survive the poor water quality. In 2016, the group shifted to clams. The southern quahogs are heartier, said Ronda Ryan, Sarasota Bay Watch executive director. They survived Florida’s devastating 2017-2018 red tide.
The nonprofit also releases clams where seagrass is sparse in the bay. “The hope is that putting clams in the water will help clear the water and improve the capability for photosynthesis and thus increase seagrass,” Ryan said.
“The goal here is to is to reestablish seagrass because seagrass is the functional base or foundation of the ecosystem,” he said. “Everything out there either eats it, lays their eggs in it, hides in it or lives in it. Without it, it’s like a desert.”
A greater purpose
In 2019 when the Indian River Lagoon Restoration Project began, water samples didn’t detect any clam larvae. But in this spring’s spawning season, Osborne said, hundreds of free-swimming clam larvae — known as veligers — showed up in the samples.
“We know that at least what we put out there has spawned,” Osborne said.
The project has released 13 million clams since its inception, with nearly a million in this year alone. By October, the volunteers and scientists will plant three million more. The next phase, which the FWC is sponsoring, will add 12 million clams to the lagoon’s troubled waters in the next two years.
Osborne paints a vision for the future he and other scientists and volunteers are working to create: Once the quahogs clear out the algae, water clarity will improve and sunlight will reach the darkened, dying sea grasses.
Pinfish, a prominent bait fish, nibble off of clam siphons, unclogging them.
Clams are the base, Sullivan said, and with their flourishing, others along the ecological chain will, too.
On a recent Friday, three generations of women converged in the shallow water near River Rocks restaurant: a grandmother, Annette Bushnell, 57; her daughter, Cami Waldon, 36; and a granddaughter, Kaylee Waldon, 14. Annette and Cami donned straw hats and giggled as they hauled the quahogs.
We’ve heard rumors that the Indian River Lagoon was once clear, and we’d love to try to make that happen again. I like releasing the clams, knowing that they were going to serve a greater purpose.Cami Waldon
Bushnell said she appreciated working arm and arm with the community, passing the bags between one another. Her father lived on a houseboat, and her grandmother owned a boat named “Tattletail.” In Washington state, the family clammed with her grandparents.
Brine pulses through Blair’s veins too. A sea breeze saturates his lungs.
His family’s fishing legacy traces back five generations, he said; on his dad’s side, back to his great-great grandad in southern Alabama, and on his mom’s side, back to the Seminole Indians of Florida.
The solution to Florida’s water woes can’t be just about the shellfish, he acknowledges. For all the work he, his neighbors and the scientists are doing to restore clams, an even greater effort must be made to stem the pollution torrent killing the lagoon.
He and other locals can wade in Florida waters and chuck clams out — an action.
Born and raised on the Indian River and its lagoon, Blair said for him, it is now dead. He aims to revive it.
This story is part of the UF College of Journalism and Communications’ series WATERSHED, an investigation into statewide water quality marking the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, supported by the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.