Florida’s seafood industry assesses damage from Hurricane Idalia

Published on
September 1, 2023
A hard clam farm in Cedar Key, Florida.

Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Wednesday, 30 August in rural Taylor County, Florida, U.S.A., about 90 miles southeast of the state capital at Tallahassee, as a category 3 storm with sustained wind speeds of 125 miles per hour, before dropping to category 2 as it moved northeast overland toward the U.S. state of Georgia.

The state widely avoided major catastrophe, but one of its hardest-hit communities was Cedar Key, home to several aquaculture businesses focused on hard clams. Water levels rose 7 feet above normal in Cedar Key, flooding homes and businesses.

Shellfish farming infrastructure, such as waterfront clam nurseries with their sheds and tanks, are vulnerable to storm tides. During Idalia’s passage, surges lasting beyond landfall were boosted by astronomical high tides – so-called king tides or supermoon tides – due to the moon’s closer orbital approach to Earth and resulting tidal forces.

“It’s a little too early to tell in terms of effects on the clam industry,” Leslie Strumer, a shellfish aquaculture specialist at the University of Florida/IFAS Shellfish Aquaculture Research and Extension Program Cedar Key field office, told National Fisherman.

But early signs were hopeful, Strumer said by cell phone Thursday as she and other staffers returned with boats that had been moved off-island as a precaution. The tide on Thursday, 31 August was still too high to allow a full assessment of how clams on the lease beds survived.

“I expected all the lease poles to be down, but they’re not. So that’s not so bad,” Strumer said. “We have 120 million clams come out of this island community annually, 90 percent of Florida’s production. That supports 500 jobs. Tentatively, it doesn’t look as bad as it could be.”

Clammers Thursday were cleaning up around sheds and raceways in the island clam nurseries, and the university’s nursery facility seemed not to be as damaged as Strumer had feared.

“I drove up expecting the worst,” she said. "

As clammers investigate the beds, they will determine if clams were buried by shifting sediment, or their bags balled up and displaced from the leases, according to Strumer. After Hurricane Hermine, a category 1 storm in 2016, clam crop losses were estimated at 35 percent.

Scallopers and crabbers in Florida’s Big Bend area are concerned about the deteriorated condition of water quality affecting their ability to fish.

“It’s going to be real slow for a while because our waters are dirty,” scalloper Justin Lord said.

U.S. President Joe Biden is planning to visit Big Bend on Saturday, 2 September to assess the damage, according to The New York Times, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis visited Steinhatchee, Florida, on Thursday 31 August, promising to seek emergency funding from the federal government to aid in disaster recovery.

“[Commercial fishing] is an important part of the economy here,” he said. “It is going to be a blow to a lot of folks in that industry.”

Additional reporting by Kirk Moore

Photo courtesy of University of Florida/IFAS

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