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Cedar Key Aquacultural Farms In Florida.

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Living Through Water: Cedar Key Aquacultural Farms

Clam Boat Captain Discusses Lifestyle, Education & The Allure Of The Key In Fishing Community On Florida Gulf Coast

Captain Bobby Witt On The Water Off Cedar Key. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

Instinct is a very important trait from one who makes his living on the water. Bobby Witt has been a fisherman all his life. Now he takes his love for the sea and has place it into an unusual but fulfilling lifestyle that can only be found in certain places. Cedar Key, a haven of beauty on Florida's Northwest Gulf Coast is known at times more for its seafood than anything else. Witt farms clams and oysters on his own parcel lease right off shore. What is equally interesting is the tours he gives to the knowing public through his Cedar Key Aquaculture Farm Tours to give an insight into the old school skill. Captain Witt sat down with MRV: The Buzz Editor In Chief Tim Wassberg in his workshop off the dock in Cedar Key to discuss aquaculture, chemistry and the art of history.

The Buzz: You grew up in this area…actually in Crystal River. Could you talk about growing up and your love for all things sort of marine and aquatic from your point of view?

BW: Well, Crystal River was still a commercial fishing town when I was a boy, and that was the primary thing…the fishing and the swimming and the manatees actually came later. We all grew up as kids swimming in that river, swimming in the springs and the crystal clear water. And it was actually drinking water over the springs. We'd go over the springs and fill up our water jugs (laughing) and it was really clean and pure and wonderful. And we were at a time in the '60s, early '70s, when a lot of people were buying fiberglass boats. So the wood boats were a dime a dozen…all of us kids had a wooden boat.

The Buzz: So you had a boat growing up as a kid?

BW: Oh yeah. All the kids did. We all had boats, yeah. Most of the time we'd row them or get a little lap board or whatever, but all the kids had boats. We all grew up swimming and on the river and crabbing and fishing and carrying on. That went on, and then of course I've had to make a real living when I got older and starting taking fishing a lot more seriously. I did fishing charters, but I primarily mullet fished…did the net fishing, full-time year round.

The Buzz: Commercially?

BW: Commercially, yeah.  I got paid to go fishing every day. It was wonderful. It really was.

The Buzz: It was that area right off that point?

BW: Right off there. I'd fish in the Ozello River primarily. I'd go out on Crystal River and fish there. But then we'd come back to the fresh water every day. You wash down the boat with fresh water and go for a swim.

The Buzz: But there were some changes…

BW: Well, what I saw in Crystal River was-- the biggest thing that was so bad was the dumping of herbicides. The ecosystem was destroyed with the herbicides to kill the grass. And then after that, any pollutant that comes down the pipe pollutes the water. They actually used our tax money to dump the herbicides in the river. And so now, in the clam business, I try to be proactive as much as I can and try to keep this environment clean here.

The Buzz: Can you talk about coming here to Cedar Key and that mindset, that psychology of raising the clams and doing it from almost sustainable point of view…

BW: Well, that's the whole thing about the open water aquaculture is sustainability. But when came her, there was the net ban and all of us were very upset over the net ban. A lot of us [though] saw an opportunity here in the clam business, so we came here. And for me, the clamming was a good fit because I grew up swimming in Crystal River. So [I got] to have an underwater swimming job. When I was a kid, I was always watching Jacques Cousteau and “Sea Hunt” --

Captain Bobby Witt Explaining The Life Off Clams Off Cedar Key. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]
Holding A Few Clams Off Cedar Key. [Photo Credit: Tim Wassberg]

The Buzz: Can you talk about a little bit what clamming here involves for you. And plus you do oysters too. Some people don't understand what it takes to grow these, how to farm them in that way but also to maintain their exact premium taste.

BW: Well, there's several steps to it. There's the nursery stage on land and then we do another nursery stage in the water. Well, the hatcheries [at the universities] actually produce the little sea clams. They're real tiny. And generally, the farmer will get them at one millimeter…one two, one five maybe, which is a very small animal. And we have to keep them on the raceways on land and grow them on up. We try to get them to, at least, three to four millimeters. Then they can go out in the nursery bags out on the farms. But they're very vulnerable when they're that little. You've got to have good, healthy animals to take out in the bay. And you've got to try to do it when the conditions are good. So there's a lot of variables. A lot of it actually is the strategy of knowing when to plant and not to plant, and so on and so forth. Then we'll leave them out there for three to five months, depending on growing conditions. And then we bring them right back into the dock again. And we break down the stocking densities. We wash everybody real good. And then put them in bigger mesh bags so they can grow on up.

The Buzz: It is beautiful the way the clam beds are out there right offshore because everybody knows where their spot is. But you also keep track of the water and what's in it as far as the algae so it can remain consistent.

BW: Right…because you don't want to plant when the salinity is too low. Cedar Key is the perfect spot for growing clams because we have two freshwater rivers to the east, and then we have the big Suwanee River to the north. We have the Withlacoochee and Waccasassa freshwater. So it all comes together while they're at Cedar Key, because there's enough fresh water coming from both directions to create this really good algae growth.

The Buzz: Now can you talk about the proximity of the way the water flows? The way this place is set up is unique. It's unique in Florida which is already unique, I think, generally in the country and this part of the world.

BW: Cedar Key is rare. We have a real working waterfront. The clam industry in Cedar Key is actually much bigger than tourism. People don't realize that. They always think tourism is the main industry. It is in most coastal towns but not here. Clamming actually generates a lot more money than tourism in this town.

The Buzz: You were saying how everybody has their own set spot, you know? In that one area with the oysters, you said you have 50,000 oysters… in such a small area. The thing is the aspect of scale in terms of production of this is very interesting. Could you talk about that -- we see all just those little poles out there but that represents such a large amount of material.

BW: Each parcel is a two-acre parcel. Most of the farmers have a couple three parcels. That's the average. But each farmer, with his parcel, he knows every inch of it like most people know their backyard.

The Buzz: You do too.

BW: Yeah. The farmer knows every inch of his submerged land's lease and how it's set up. And the amazing part is, some of the leases are better than others, and they can be right next door to one another. You can have a really good, productive lease, and then a not-so-productive, poor lease right next door. It's pretty amazing. So it's all about the sand and the substrate on the bottom that makes different parcels more productive than others.

The Buzz: What’s the bottom like here and how does that generate the clams specifically?

BW: Well, the clams…they like a sandy, muddy mix, and if you throw in a little bit of clay, they like that too. So a lot of times the farmers who get out on some of the leases, you'll have a lot of mud stuck to your boots. But that's actually a good thing…that means you've got clay in the sand and it holds it together. They like that.

Go To Part II Of Interview

Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

Cedar Key RV Resort

Make Sure To Stay At:

Cedar Key RV Resort, which is located less than 10 minutes from historic Cedar Key, Florida has large, heavily wooded lots, averaging 45x80 ft in size or larger. The park has great features including a beautiful heated pool, very clean bathhouses,  wireless internet and full hookups with 30-50 amps.

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