Bushnell, FL - Events of Wednesday, March 19, 2014
A few weeks ago, Linda and Rob of My Quantum Discovery gave us a shout-out in their blog because they used info from one of our posts when they visited Silver Springs State Park. Now it looks like it is our turn to thank them because a recent blog post of theirs inspired us to visit Cedar Key last Wednesday.
By the way, "key" is the Anglicized version of an Indian word "cayo" meaning small island. In the Bahamas, their small islands are called Cays, which is closer to the original Indian word. Cay is spelled differently, but it is still pronounced key.
Cedar Key is a town about two hours northwest of where we are staying in Bushnell. The town is located on Way Key, which is the largest of a group of small islands just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Since the town occupies most of Way Key, the whole island is frequently referred to as Cedar Key. Although each island in the group has its own individual name, the entire group of islands is called Cedar Keys. Cedar Key gets its name from the eastern red cedar trees that used to be so abundant in the area.
Our first stop was at Shell Mound, which is located north of Cedar Key at the end of County Road 326. Shell Mound is a midden mound that is part of the Lower Swuannee National Wildlife Preserve.
Initially, we weren't sure exactly where the trail for the mound started, so we followed the road all the way to the end where there is a boardwalk out over the mud flats to a fishing pier.
If you go to Shell Mound, take insect repellent. We carry Off towelettes in the glove compartment, but we neglected to use them when we walked out the boardwalk to the fishing pier. The no-seeums just about ate us alive.
There is a trail from the parking area at the pier, but we weren't sure it was the right one (we later found out it did lead to the mound), so we drove back the road about a quarter mile to another parking area where there was a sign for the trail.
The mound covers 5 acres and is 28 feet tall. It consists primarily of oyster and whelk shells along with some deer and fish bones and a little primitive household refuse (potsherds and the like) discarded by ancient Indian civilizations who lived in the area. The trail circles around the base of part of the mound and goes up over one end. We headed out on the loop, which is only about half a mile in total length. This time, we used our Off towelettes, and the no-seeums didn't bother us.
Woodland Indian cultures used the mound as a depository for shells and other refuse from about 2500 BC to 1000 AD. Shells from the mound were used as a source for road-building material before the area became a wildlife refuge so the mound is not as big as it once was.
Our next stop was Southern Cross Sea Farm located on State Route 24 just outside the town of Cedar Key. Southern Cross Sea Farm is one of the largest producers of hard shell clams in Florida. There are lots of clam farmers, but Southern Cross is also one of the few clam breeders. They have tours; but day and time may vary, so call ahead. They were Wednesdays at 1:00 when we went.
It was about 12:45 when we arrived at Southern Cross, and people were already gathering for the tour. There was an aquarium inside the main building, and several of us occupied ourselves watching and photographing the resident octopus while waiting for the tour to start.
The tour was led by one of the co-owners of Southern Cross. His presentation was filled with lots of interesting information about breeding and farming clams.
The clams bred and grown at Southern Cross are northern hard-shell clams called quahogs. There is a southern variety of edible clam that lives along the Atlantic coast, but it has a softer shell and can't survive in the wild on the Gulf Coast of Florida because there are too many predators.
Clams breed in the wild in the spring and fall. Breeding is initiated by fluctuating water temperatures that occur during those times of the year. The sun heats the shallow water where the clams live during the day, and the water cools off at night.
At the clam farm, breeding can take place at any time of the year because they can fool the clams into thinking it is spring or fall by artificially manipulating the water temperature. Brood stock is kept in tanks where the water temperature is cool all the time. A couple hundred of the brood stock clams are placed in the shallow water on the table to the right in the photo below, and the temperature of the water is manipulated back and forth from warm to cool. Breeding can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days depending on how long it takes the clams to get into the mood.
Newly hatched clams, called larvae, are microscopic. They are placed in the clear 6,000 gallon tanks in far background of the photo above and fed algae. All water used in the early part of the clams' life cycle is highly filtered to remove all potentially harmful organisms.
Clam larvae swim for about 5 days after hatching, after which they fall to the bottom. In the wild, they will live out their entire lives where they fall, but at the clam farm, they are transferred from the 6,000-gallon holding tanks to the shallow, rectangular tanks to the left in the photo above.
The clams, which are now about the size of fine dust particles, are kept in round trays with fine filter cloth on the bottom as shown in the photo below. Water containing algae is constantly circulated through the containers.
Southern Cross purchases small vials of specific varieties of algae to feed the young clams. The algae in the vials is multiplied first in 5 gallon carboys then in the 60 gallon, cylindrical tanks in the photo below. The lightest tanks are filtered seawater that have not yet had starter algae added. The algae has been growing for about a day in the light yellow tanks, and the algae in the darkest tanks is about 5 days old and is almost ready to use.
After about 6 weeks, the clams, which are about the size of fine sand, are moved to tanks outside. Water from the Gulf is circulated through these tanks, and the clams now begin to feed on wild algae. The clams are still kept in circular containers with filter-cloth bottoms.
After a short period in the small, rectangular tanks, the clams are transferred to larger tanks in the floating dock system, and seawater is circulated through the tanks.
At this point, the clams look like fine gravel.
When the clams reach 3/16 to 1/4 inch in size, they are finally ready to be "planted." The clams are placed in mesh bags (about 15,000 per bag), which are then strung together and staked out in areas of shallow coastal waters leased from the state.
The mesh bags are brought in after a few months, and the clams are removed from the bags and washed to remove empty shells and other debris. The clams, now about the size of a dime, are placed in new bags with larger openings and staked out again in the shallow waters for another 18 months.
At harvest time, the net bags are hauled in and brought back to the processing facility where the clams are washed again and sorted to remove anything that is not a live clam.
The white lip on the clam shells in the photo above indicate the latest growth spurt of that individual clam. Large clams with the widest white lip on their shells indicate the fastest growing clams, which make good candidates for brood stock if needed.
The clams then go to a mechanical sorter which has pairs of rollers with successively smaller spacing between them. The largest clams ride the top pair of rollers all the way to the end and fall into the yellow bags, and the smaller ones fall through the various pairs of rollers and go to different colored bags depending on their size. Clams can live out of water for three weeks or more if kept cool and moist.
On our tour, we learned the location of this area between the mouth of the Suwannee River to the north and the Waccasassa River to the south is what makes it so good for raising clams. The rivers deliver nutrients to grow plenty of natural algae in the water to feed the clams, yet Cedar Key juts far enough out into the Gulf that the salinity of the water is not significantly reduced by the fresh water from the rivers. Low salinity would be fatal to the clams.
The other thing that made clam raising in this area such a success was the state-wide ban on large scale net fishing in 1995. After that ban, many fishermen were retrained in aqua-culture, and clam farming took off. Today, Cedar Key is known as "The Farm-Raised Clam Capital of America."
Southern Sea Farms sells about 25% of the clams from their nursery to other clam farmers. The rest they plant themselves. They sell a few clams and other seafood to the public at their facility, but most of their product is sold to wholesale distributors.
We really enjoyed our tour. It was so interesting and informative, it took our minds off how hungry we were. However, as soon as it was over, we realized it was mid afternoon and our stomachs were growling. We headed straight into town for a late lunch. Look for our next post to see where we ate and what we did afterward.