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Every morning, a dwindling group of oystermen congregates at the weather-worn Jiffy store here to trade stories over coffee before pushing off in a furtive search for the million-dollar oyster bed.

The oysterman who hits the jackpot can make a quick killing. All it takes is a little skill, a little luck and lots of muscle to scoop up the scrumptious treasure with a 14-foot-long set of tongs that look like overgrown salad utensils.

"It's almost tribal," says Nena Calvert, a fifth-generation Cedar Key woman who owns a fish house. "They gather up at the Jiffy store and talk about the things they talk about and they go out and scatter."

Those days may be numbered. The past year has seen the

harbingers of a revolution in the lives of Cedar Key oystermen. Just as agriculture transformed hunters and gatherers into farmers centuries ago, aquaculture is replacing the oysterman's tongs with mesh bags, re-bar racks and plastic piping _ the implements of shellfish farming.

Over two years, marine biologists are training 150 to 175fishermen from Levy and Dixie counties to raise oysters and clams from seed _ baby shellfish hatched at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. Cedar Key is in LevyCounty.

Jerry Beckham, a 45-year-old Cedar Key oysterman, learned oystering from his father when he was 12. He has mixed feelings about the project. But he also realizes that oyster farming is fast becoming his only choice. In 1989, the state closed many of the most productive natural oyster beds off of Cedar Key because of pollution from nearby development.

"I prefer oystering off the natural beds, but you're just getting where you're limited so much in where you can go," Beckham says. "I think it's what's going to be the future, really, the aquaculture."

Oystermen have no choice but to hang up their tongs. The number of tongers has dwindled from about 50 to half a dozen over the last three years, says Calvert, who works for Project Ocean and is Beckham's sister-in-law.

"This is not the best thing, but they can work on the water," she says. "It sure as heck beats driving an hour to work at Wal-Mart. If you put these guys in Wal-Mart, you're going to kill them."

From catfish to shrimp, farm-raised seafood is finding its way onto more and more dinner plates in homes and restaurants. Commercial fishermen have resisted the trend because it strengthens the cause of conservationists who want to close their traditional fishing areas.

In Project Ocean, the dynamics are different. Former oystermen, forced from their oyster bars, aren't losing their jobs to shellfish farmers; they're becoming the farmers themselves. A federal Job Training Partnership Act program to help underemployed workers is bearing the estimated $3-million cost of the two-year program.

"We love it," says Ginger Cooke, who owns Cooke's Oysters fish house in Cedar Key and fishes commercially with her husband. "It's the thing we needed, because the way building is going, it's going to take care of oystering from natural bars."

Life on a barge

Sandy Taft beamed as she showed a bagful of clams to visitors on the Project Ocean barge off of Cedar Key in June. Many fishermen were skeptical of this experimental project, but for Taft, it has exceeded all expectations.

Shellfish thrive on the Cedar Key waters, rich with the algae and photoplankton.

"They grow so fast here," her husband, Tim Taft, says. "They grow faster than anybody thought."

Each novice shellfish farmer began last year with 50,000 each of clam and oyster seed, babies about the size of an oatmeal flake. A good yield might be 60 percent.

The shellfish seed are put in mesh bags that are staked in shallow waters. As the clams and oysters grow, they are divided up into bags with larger meshes to allow more food to reach them.

Each participant uses a 10-foot-wide strip of water bottom stretching out 850 feet from the shore in Project Ocean's 22-acre growing area.

In the first 100 feet, an area that can be exposed at low tide, the participants stake clam bags in the sandy bottom. In the next 150 feet, each participant has up to 56 bags of oysters mounted in a row on a belt of PVC pipe.

Next comes a navigational corridor. Finally, in waters that are 6 to 8 feet deep at low tide, the participants tie bags of oysters at three levels to submerged rebar racks. Each rack holds nine bags, about seven bushels or 1,500 oysters. The participants have four to nine racks apiece.

After the training, the oystermen can lease their own piece of water bottom within 1,200 acres approved by the state Department of Natural Resources off Dixie and Levy counties. They must pay a $200 application fee and $20 an acre annual fee.

The oyster bags must be hauled out of the water at least every two weeks and hosed down to clean out seaweed and other muck that blocks food from getting in.

"If you leave them for two or three weeks, they'll just cover the bag," Anderson says.

Specially equipped boats help retrieve their underground belts and racks of oysters.

Growing clams is simpler. The clams burrow down into the sand, so the bags don't get clogged as much with seaweed. The bags need to be checked occasionally for any rips or seaweed buildup.

For that reason, many shellfish farmers favor clams over oysters. Because oysters are the traditional Cedar Key product, participants like the Tafts are taking their farm-raised clams on the road to festivals and restaurants to promote a new product: the Cedar Key clam.

"A lot of people who oystered in the past are going to go strictly to clams because it's less labor-intensive," says Al Dinsmore, a Cedar Key oysterman who is a Project Ocean participant. "Basically, you just put them in a bag and forget them."

Building a market

Traditional oystering is hard physical labor. An oysterman spends hours standing in his boat using the heavy tongs to rake up oysters and dump them on board. "Imagine being on a Nautilus machine for six hours," Calvert says.

For those with the strength, it can be a quick way to make good money. Before the oyster bars were closed in 1989, a day on the water could produce 20 bushel bags of oysters worth about $300. All a man needed was a boat and a pair of tongs.

"In aquaculture, you have to farm them," Beckham says. "When Mother Nature farms them, you just go out and get them. It's much simpler."

Like a farmer on land, the shellfish farmer has to balance the books. He or she must buy seed, equipment and property _ an investment that won't pay off until the shellfish are mature, 10 months to a year later.

The farmer must tend to his crop until harvest. If the shellfish are "planted" in an area low in nutrients, the yield won't be very good, Beckham says. It's easier when Mother Nature takes those risks.

Aquaculture also takes some of the challenge out of oystering, Beckham says. Like any fisherman, oystermen closely guard their knowledge of the best oyster beds, sometimes passed down from father to son through the generations.

But Wayne Miller, who has been oystering for more than 10 years, likes being the proprietor of his own farm. In wild oystering, when an oysterman finds a good oyster bed, he has to deal with any followers who show up.

"I prefer this, because nobody can come out and mess with you," the Dixie County oysterman says.

The federal funds provide the participants with the equipment they need. Project Ocean also gives them night classes on the business side of farming: marketing, getting loans and management.

Because it costs more to farm-raise shellfish than to harvest wild ones, farmers need to sell their product at a premium over the wild shellfish to make a profit.

There are two selling points. One is a label that says the shellfish were grown in state-approved waters.

"It's enabling people who read all this bad press on oysters and quit eating them and love oysters, it's enabling them to eat them again," says Mike Davis, owner of Cedar Key Fish & Oyster Co.

The other is the more perfectly shaped and deeper oyster shell that produces a plump and aesthetically pleasing oyster restaurants can serve on the half shell.

"Maybe eventually, we won't even need to get the wild oysters, because this is a superior product," says Freddy Crisp, a Project Ocean participant from Cedar Key.

In Davis' opinion, the oysters taste as good as wild Cedar Key oysters, which are an object of no small pride for locals. The flavor comes from something special in the waters, they say.

"You can't beat a Cedar Key oyster," Calvert says. "We have people who fly in from all over the state of Florida just to eat lunch."