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Working The Sea Without A Net

Letter From Florida

Working the Sea without a Net

For nine years, trim, sunburned Mike Davis ran a wholesale and retail fish house in Cedar Key, Fla., where he employed nine. He had followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, who came here in the 1860s to fish for mullet, sea trout, and pompano. Every generation since then has made its living from the sea, right down to Davis' son, Heath, now 21.

But four years ago, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment, backed by a powerful sports-fishing lobby, that outlawed the commercial fishing nets that trap up to 1,000 fish at a time. The ban put thousands out of work and shuttered Davis' business. It threatened to devastate Cedar Key, where fishing traditions run deep. Some six generations in this village of 700 have fished the Florida waters. "It's not like when IBM lays off people and they can send out resumes," says Mike Davis, 47, "It wasn't a job, it was a way of life, a heritage, something we'd always done and figured we'd always be doing."SHELL GAME. But now, thanks to a program begun by the state, Mike and Heath Davis and others once more make their living from commercial fishing. While voters banished the big nets, Florida gave Cedar Key its own safety net: aquafarming. Florida is leasing some 1,100 shallow, one-acre saltwater plots near Cedar Key for clam farming. After a $200 application fee, fishermen pay just $20 annually per plot for each 10-year renewable lease. The government has also funded programs to teach locals how to plant and harvest the clams. "These folks wanted it, and said, `How fast can you teach me?"' says Leslie N. Sturmer, a University of Florida aquaculture extension agent. It took about a year to turn the tough, independent fishermen into aquafarmers.

So these days, Mike and Heath Davis pile into their 28-foot converted net-fishing boat and make their way down alleyways marked by buoys and PVC pipe to three underwater plots, just 500 yards offshore. Today, they fill an order for 9,000 clams for Orlando restaurants. The clams have been living in 4-by-4-foot polyester bags for a year. They started as tiny "seeds" in a nursery, where they grew to little more than a tenth of an inch. Bagged to keep them together and protect them from predators, they were dumped onto the seabed for nine months to mature. Then they were hauled up, rebagged to give them more room to grow, and dropped overboard again. They'll stay underwater for one to five months longer, depending on the sizes specified in orders by restaurants and wholesalers.

The Davises use a mechanical system to lift the sacks containing up to 1,000 clams. An onboard tumbler washes and sorts the clams, but Mike Davis' longtime skills come into play as he rolls half a dozen between his palms. He immediately detects the sound of the hollow shell of a dead one and plucks it out.

The father and son are among 318 clam farmers in Florida, whose revenues totaled $12.7 million in 1997 (the last year for which data are available). That compares with 13 clam farmers and sales of less than $500,000 a decade ago. Full-timers average around $30,000 a year from their plots. Some, such as Davis, who's also a distributor, do even better. Two-thirds of the state's clam farmers are in the Cedar Key region, but aquaculture is replacing lost fishing jobs all along the Florida coast and as far away as Oregon and New England.

Most of the 200 clammers in the Cedar Key area are one- or two-person operations, but larger outfits are starting up. Cedar Key Aquaculture Farms, with 30 workers and 12 one-acre plots, took in $1 million last year. There are even auxiliary businesses. The Bag Lady, run by ex-waitress Carole Strobach, provides work for four seamstresses, who make the nursery bags. There's also a secondary market for the leases, with some going for as much as $10,000. Clammers with multiple leases sometimes sell one to pay for fishing equipment.

Not everybody likes the change to aquafarming. Some diehards miss the excitement of fighting the sea for a living. But for Mike and Heath Davis, giving up that kind of adventure is a small price to pay for a steady income from the Florida waters.EDITED BY SANDRA DALLASReturn to top

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