'Scraping the bottom of the Barrel': COVID-19 relief funds are now paying off

Clam farmers back after riding out the pandemic storm
Two Docks Shellfish on the water
Posted at 6:06 AM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 17:03:20-04

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — There are so many industries that needed help during the pandemic. We don't always hear a lot about clam farmers, but, they needed just as much help as everyone else.

Aaron Welch, the owner of Two Docks Shellfish, told ABC Action News the various state and federal funds helped him live to farm another day. One of the rapid relief funds that helped keep him afloat was a clam buyback program.

"Being able to pull clams and sell them at a fair price to a program like the buyback program that was doing good things with them was great, and the sort of dark days of the pandemic every dollar helped," Welch said. "We would not have survived without PPP and other programs like the buyback program."

The clam buyback program was through the Florida Sea Grant program, operated by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.

"It was scary during the pandemic our little business went to zero overnight basically back then our revenue was 100% overnight in the restaurant trade," Welch said.

Across the state, 47 clam farmers participated in the program. Roughly 450,000 clams were purchased by Florida Sea Grant and used to restore the fragile ecosystem of the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's Space Coast.

"Clams feed in the water that they were in and make the water cleaner than it was before they were there," Angela Collins, a Florida Sea Grant Agent, said.

Florida Sea Grant's mission "is to help support research, education, and extension to conserve coastal resources and enhance economic opportunities for the people of Florida," according to their website.

Collins tells ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska the easy way to sum up their mission statement is to support Florida aquaculture and rich natural resources on our waterways.

"Eat local absolutely buy Florida shellfish whenever you can. Buy any Florida seafood whenever you can," Collins said.

We were with Welch as he prepared to plant a new crop of clams in the Bay. In a year, they'll be ready to harvest. The process is time-consuming, organized, and done mainly by hand.

"It's about an 18 to 20-month process, and we take the clam from sort of conception to somebody's dinner plate," Welch said.

Most of the time, Welch worries about environmental factors like hurricanes, red tide, or water quality issues that could kill his mollusks. A pandemic wasn't on his radar. It wasn't on anyone's radar. But, he learned valuable lessons and plans to keep farming some of the best clams in Florida.

"The pandemic made us re-think our business," Welch said. "We are not 100% dependent on the restaurant trade anymore. We made a conscious effort to diversify our business so that we don't get hit in the face that badly again, being completely dependent on one side of the food industry."