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Project sows seeds for clam farming industry

Officials with the Economic Development Commission are testing the coastal waters off Hernando County to see if the area is viable for aquaculture.

Economic development officials have planned an expedition to the coastal waters off Hernando County next week to plant seeds for what is hoped to be the start of a new industry.

Economic Development Commission staffers and representatives of the state Department of Environmental Protection plan to drop clam seeds less than a mile off Hernando County's coast line Wednesday.

The test crop will help DEP officials decide whether Hernando's coastal waters are a viable habitat for clam farming.

The state and EDC have found 100 acres of land offshore that could possibly support clam farming, EDC executive director Richard Michael said. The acreage would be divvied up into two-acre plats and leased to clam farmers by the state.

Before that can happen, DEP officials have to see if the area is conducive for clam farming. The size and quality of the test clams must be evaluated; water samples must be taken. It generally takes up to a year for a clam seed to mature into a marketable clam.

"We want to be able to plant seeds and look at the growth rates based on the nutrients in the water," Michael said.

EDC officials hope the project will allow the coastal area to develop a smaller version of clam farming operations in Cedar Key. More than 200 clam farms have been established there, most by fishers thrown out of work by the statewide net-fishing ban in 1995.

The clam farming project is just the latest attempt by the EDC to start an aquaculture program. Last year, the EDC failed to win a $100,000 grant from the state to start an aquaculture park at the north campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College.

The program would have taught local entrepreneurs how to start their own fish farms.

Now, the EDC is trying to set aside land at the Hernando County Airport for fish farming. Two local businesspeople have already contacted the EDC about starting enclosed shrimp farms, Michael said.

To stir interest in aquaculture, or fish farming, the EDC has been taking local officials on field trips to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce to see working fish farms.

Patti Patrick, chairwoman of the Aviation Authority, said she had her doubts about fish farms at the airport.

"Every time (the proposed aquaculture park) has been mentioned, it was shot down," Patrick said.

But she said many of her concerns were eased by actually seeing working farms.

"I was impressed," Patrick said.

"It made a lot of sense the way they were doing it."