GOODLAND — Nick Lemke couldn’t believe his eyes when he dove into the waters of Gullivan Bay to check out the fruits of his aquaculture labors this year.
“You should have seen me running around here: ‘Clams! Clams! Clams!’” said Lemke, 43, from his home in Goodland, a short boat ride from his submerged seafood farm.
Lemke’s celebration has been a long time coming for a clam-farming industry that has been slow to get off the ground in Collier County despite a decade of trying.
In a move emblematic of the tough row that aquaculture has had to hoe, county commissioners agreed this month to take the county’s name off two aquaculture leases it had held with Florida Gulf Coast University since 2005.
Plans to turn the plots into training sites for would-be clam farmers never panned out.
“It made sense at the time,” said Aswani Volety, the FGCU College of Arts and Sciences interim dean and marine field station director.
As it turned out, though, FGCU was unable to get grants to pay for research into growing rates, disease susceptibility and red tide and now wants to swap the leases for Pine Island Sound leases closer to its field station in Lee County.
The ill-fated partnership mirrors the fate of aquaculture in general in Collier County, where clam canneries were major employers on Marco Island in the early 20th century and shipped trainloads of clams up North.
Aquaculture has failed to bring clamming’s heyday back to Collier.
“It never seemed to take off here,” said Bryan Fluech, Florida Sea Grant extension agent for Collier County.
The push to bring aquaculture to Collier County started in 2002, when a county task force began scouting locations for leases, then got the state to sign off and held aquaculture workshops.
Then-Commissioner Jim Coletta got behind the fledgling industry when fishermen from Goodland, Everglades City and Chokoloskee asked for his help after a constitutional amendment to restrict net sizes put many of them out of business.
“There was a lot of excitement because it was seen as a way to get back on the water and earn a living,” Coletta said.
The initial buzz has quieted.
Lemke is one of only five clam farmers to sign up for one of the 32, 2-acre aquaculture lease sites on the edge of the Ten Thousand Islands east of Cape Romano, records show. Of them, only 14 of the sites are leased. Few are actually used, Lemke said.
While the county didn’t have to pay for its research sites, clam farmers pay $26 per acre per year and also must pay for any annual certifications they need.
Making a business out of it takes more than many people are willing to put into it, said Kal Knickerbocker, acting director of the state’s aquaculture division at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“It’s high risk and it’s darn hard work,” he said.
Matt Finn, a driving force behind the local aquaculture movement and one of the first lease holders in Collier, has since gotten out of the clam farming business.
He said the fledgling industry took a big hit from Hurricane Wilma, which blew right over the lease sites in 2005 just as farmers were gearing up. Clam farmers in Collier faced overwhelming competition for disaster relief money from other parts of the state and got shortchanged, he said.
“It’s very hard to get the ball rolling,” Finn said.
Lemke took over Finn’s leases and then leased a third one. He started planting one of his lease sites last year. His first crop was about enough for himself and friends to eat. Then he went all in, spending about $600 to buy 50,000 seed clams.
He put the seed clams in nylon-like bags, rolled them out on the sandy bottom of Gullivan Bay and then waited.
If not for the ongoing red tide, which closes shellfish areas to harvesting until the algae bloom leaves the area, he said he would have no problem selling the clams to Marco and Goodland restaurants that are itching to serve fresh local seafood.
For now, Lemke can only sell to wholesalers. He needs a processor’s license to be able to sell retail, where the money is better, he said.
He plans to build a small processing operation at his home and wants to grow his own seed clams in a nursery in a canal nearby.
“You’re investing in the unknown a little because it’s new,” Lemke said, adding that one day he expects to be able to make a living solely on clam farming. “Without a doubt.”