Mussel seed venture in assist of the lagoon reaches 12 million within the water

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Indian River Lagoon Clam Restoration Project

Blair Wiggins and others from the Indian River Lagoon Clam Restoration Project placed 12 million clams to help filter out the bad algae.

Tim Shortt, Florida today

As I walked to the dock at Hog Point, I could see the red mesh bags in the shade under a small tree. My first thought? We’d need a lot of butter.

Small clams, no more than an inch or two long, packed the bags by the thousands. I figured if we weren’t going to make an epic clam cake, something else really cool was going to happen.

I was right. All of the clams I could see went into the waters of the Indian River Lagoon.

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Nine billion clams

If you’ve never seen Blair Wiggins in action before, let me know, he’s an absolute force of nature. Its energy is as contagious as it is limitless.

The Melbourne native grew up on the shores of the Indian River Lagoon and has spent his entire life fishing his waters for redfish, snook, speckled trout, tarpon and black drum. Wiggins has worked in the aerospace industry, was a successful fishing guide and champion in the saltwater tournament. But he is best known for his hugely popular television show Addictive Fishing, on which he regularly teaches anglers how to catch “mogans”, his name for real trophy fishing.

For the past three years, however, Wiggins’ passion has centered on small clams. He knows about the importance of the mussel in the complex and oppressed ecosystem of the lagoon.

“Once there were over 9 billion clams in this lagoon,” Wiggins told Florida today. “In the 1990s the mussel industry exploded in this area. The more mussels I saw coming out of the water, the dirtier the water got.”

Sum up

Wiggins, like many other mermen and women along the 156-mile lagoon, watched helplessly as the lagoon slowly died out over the years. Because of this, he led the Indian River Lagoon Clam Restoration Initiative. The initiative started in 2018 has now been able to put 12 million mussels back into the lagoon. Next year, says Todd Osborne, associate professor at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience at St. Augustine, the program will drop an additional 12 million clams into the lagoon.

The initiative has won a group of funding partners, including an early supporter, the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, as well as Star Brite Boat Cleaning Products, Brevard Zoo, Indian River Lagoon Council and many more.

“The lagoon died from 1,000 cuts – not just one problem, but many,” said Osborne. The lagoon’s problems are well documented:

  • Runoff of rainwater
  • Nutrient load
  • Fertilizer leaching
  • Pollution of the septic tank
  • Aging wastewater infrastructure
  • Overdevelopment
  • Political inaction
  • Tidal flow restricted by dams
  • overfishing

During the process, the habitat suffered. Algal blooms created shadows that killed thousands of acres of seaweed. While everyone knows what happened to the manatees because of this collapse, not everyone associates habitat loss with decreased fishing.

Wiggins and Osborne hope the clams can help reverse the damage.

As? Let the clams do the heavy lifting by:

  • Filter about 4.5 gallons of water per day per clam
  • Removing small particles from the water column
  • Diet with phytoplankton, microorganisms and debris

But to get the job done, Osborne said they had to find the right shellfish first.

Planting super shells

Shells may be heroes, but they don’t wear capes. In the early stages of the project, Osborne said natural clams were harvested from the lagoon and assessed to see which had the best chance of survival in poor quality water.

“We’re using a super shell that has been shown to live in these waters,” said Osborne. Clams were picked from the Mosquito Lagoon near Titusville and elsewhere. They were then grown in quantities where they could be reared en masse, first in aquaculture at the Whitney Lab, then at Commander’s Shellfish Camp on the Matanzas River in St. Augustine. Michael Sullivan, owner of Commander’s, delivered 350,000 clams to the Wiggins and Osborne team on Thursday.

A dozen volunteers waded waist-deep into the waters of the lagoon. Wiggins and longtime friend and fishing guide Jim Ross of Fineline Fishing Charters in Rockledge used their boats to bring the heavy clam bags to the volunteers. The mussel crews spread the mussels in an area previously leased by harvesters.

Then the team members stretched a net over the tips of the mussel plots to protect them from predators. Mussels are not only delicious for humans; many lagoon dwellers also eat them:

  • Spotted eagle rays
  • Stingrays
  • Stone crabs
  • Fight against clams

“We can’t really keep the clams out and it’s easy to tell if an eagle ray is coming in there because they’re messing up the net,” Osborne said.

One of the things Osborne is most excited about is whether the clams sown can begin to spawn more clams, thus multiplying their uses.

“So many mussels have been brought out of the lagoon that spawning activity has been hampered. In the spring, when they spawn, when the conditions are right, a clam begins to spawn. When she’s around a lot of clams, they all start spawning at the same time, “explained Osborne.

With Wiggins and Osborne at the helm, the initiative is a step in the right direction. But I couldn’t help but share Ross’s wish.

Ross has a recurring dream that a C-130 cargo plane takes off from Patrick Space Force Base in Satellite Beach. The massive plane hovers high in the air and crashes low and flies along the Indian River Lagoon. Suddenly, while flying only a few hundred meters above the water, the rear ramp door opens slowly. Millions upon millions of mussels pour out of the plane and into the water.

That would certainly help improve the health of the beloved Indian River Lagoon.

Ed Killer is today’s Florida outdoor writer. Friend Ed on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him ed.killer@tcpalm.com.

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