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Clam project is not measuring up to growth goals

The clams will be checked at least twice more before sponsors decide whether to scrap the farming project.

Clams are growing at the pace of, well, snails off the coast of Hernando Beach, a discovery that could sink a fledgling program to farm the shellfish in local waters.

John Gunter, a shellfish biologist with the state Department of Agriculture, pulled up several fistfuls of quarter-size clams Friday from nets planted 2 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

The two nets had been anchored with wires in December, and each left with 400 mature clams after younger clam seeds placed on the sea bottom in August washed away, died or failed to grow.

What Gunter found Friday were healthy, live clams that did not wash away. But they did not grow much either.

"We'd hoped they'd be a little bigger than they are," Gunter said after climbing back on board from returning the clams to their sandy havens and removing his goggles and flippers.

Not all is lost. He'll check them again in the fall, following the hot summer conducive for growing, and finally in December.

"Even after September, we'd probably wait a full year before we make an assessment" on whether clam farms could work here, Gunter said.

The Economic Development Commission of Hernando County has spearheaded the effort with the help of the state Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida after seeing the success of clam farming in the Cedar Key area, now one of the top producers in the state.

After December's disappointing discovery that the earlier clams did not grow or had washed away, EDC officials were pessimistic about clams' chances in waters off Hernando County.

The two samples Gunter pulled from the water Friday ranged from 21 to 36 millimeters long (25 millimeters equals an inch). They were placed in the water in December at sizes ranging from 17 to 30 millimeters.

To be ready for market, clams need to be about 50 millimeters long, or 2 inches.

It's likely the clams are not growing because the clean, clear water off Hernando's coast lacks the needed algae and other foods for clams found in murkier waters, experts say.

EDC member John Wickert, who has been following the progress of the clams, said the board will soon decide whether to keep the program afloat. Initially he predicted this check on the clams would map the next step for the EDC, which is helping pay for the feasibility study. But then he added it might be too soon to tell.

"We'll be looking for additional input; we'll look for reports on what they found (Friday) and make a decision within the next 30 to 40 days to continue or not," Wickert said.