Oil spill reaching Levy coast would devastate Cedar Key

A 2007 study showed that clamming had a financial impact of $45 million in Cedar Key.


The Owens children play along the shoreline, Friday, April 30, 2010 in Cedar Key, Fla.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 at 11:26 p.m.

CEDAR KEY - Life went on as usual in this Gulf Coast island town Friday - clammers tended to their crop, captains guided anglers to speckled trout and reds, kayakers paddled to Atsena Otie isle, tourists drank beer while watching dolphins roll, osprey dive and pelicans stretch their gullets.

But life will change dramatically if the oil now lapping the shores of Louisiana should drift across the Gulf of Mexico to the Levy County coastline, where residents rely on the water for their livelihood.

"We are concerned and we are watching," said Ricky Cooke, an oysterman, clammer and board member of the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association. "We are praying for the people in Louisiana - that's going to be dreadful."

Cedar Key residents say that 90 percent of their economy is based on two industries - clamming and tourism. Both depend on clean water.

Leslie Sturmer wanted to make one thing clear Friday: Cedar Key clams are healthy, untainted and fine to eat.

Sturmer is the statewide shellfish aquaculture extension agent for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and she is based in Cedar Key.

From an office decorated with clamshells both ancient and from faraway oceans, Sturmer outlined just how big of a business clamming is in Cedar Key.

An economic study for 2007 showed that clamming had a financial impact of $45 million to Cedar Key. That includes income to clammers, clam hatchery workers, those who make the polyester mesh bags in which clams grow, wholesalers and others.

For context, the clam industry statewide has a $53 million impact.

Sturmer said in 2007 about 135 clammers who leased beds off Cedar Key produced 135 million of the much-sought-after little bi-valves.

She hopes the harvest continues but reluctantly added that data from oil spills elsewhere show the spill that is currently drifting ashore in Louisiana could have long-term consequences for the industry should the Levy County coastline be contaminated, particularly if compounds in the oil become lodged in the seafloor sediments in which clams grow.

"We have safe, safe shellfish harvesting areas. The shellfish are safe to consume. Our shellfish is safe and we want our consumers to know that," Sturmer said. "There are long-term impacts ... because of the hydrocarbons (in oil). They stay in the (ecosystem) so long. There is direct impact from crude oil and then the long-term hydrocarbons that prevail in the system."

The life of a Cedar Key clam is about two years from the time it is born in a hatchery to its early life in a nursery to its planting in bags on the muddy seafloor. About 18 months of that time are in the Gulf, Sturmer said.

Clammers generally have clams of different ages. Should the oil come, some clams at or near maturity could be harvested. Younger clams could not.

Sturmer said the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is starting to scrutinize the seafood along the Gulf of Mexico. Should the oil reach the Cedar Key area, clamming will be shut down if unhealthy levels of contamination are detected during testing.

Both Sturmer and Cooke said one spot of hope is that the prevailing winds this time of year are from the south, which could keep the oil away. But a Gulf storm, late cold front or other weather pattern could quickly change that.

Clammers aren't the only ones concerned.

Capt. Jim Keith - whose boat is named the Saltwater Assassin - is a licensed fishing guide who earns a living off the water.

"I hope it doesn't come this far," Keith said of the oil. "It would hurt us. It would hurt everybody along the coast. It would be a mess. It would be a wreck on the shore, the birds, the clams, the fish."

Doug and Barbara Maple own Tidewater Tours, an environmentally oriented boat trip that they offer around the Cedar Key area. The couple said the oil could put a hurt on the animals that people come to Cedar Key to see - hundreds of different birds, dolphins and other creatures.

If that happens, tourists won't come and their income will dry up.

"I suspect that it will eventually get here. I suspect it will shut down our tourism," Doug Maple said. "My customers really appreciate the ecosystem. I emphasize it a lot. It is going to affect the estuaries all down the coast. This stuff gets in there and stays a long time."

Phil Killer and his son Jeff Killer were guiding their rental boat back to the dock after a day of fishing that included the catch - and release - of a hefty black drum. Residents of Maine, they regularly come to Cedar Key for the opportunity to chill and for fine fishing.

But the Killers said they were wondering how enjoyable and successful this trip would be.

"We spend a lot of money to come down here - airfare and everything else," Phil Killer said. "We expected to come down here and say, that's it for this trip because of the oil."

Added Jeff Killer, "It was definitely a consideration of this trip - are we going to come down here and not be able to fish at all?"

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top