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'Super Clams' released into the Matanzas River

Described as the ‘Liver of the River,’ they could help clean a river that is dealing with population growth along its banks.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Some of the healthiest shellfish in Florida come from the river that runs through St. Augustine.

Commercial fisherman come from around Florida for clams that call the Matanzas River home.

In recent years, those clams have been declining in number. But an effort by the community in Crescent Beach hopes to resuscitate the species and possibly even strengthen the river itself.

“It’s beautiful on the river,” said Pat Hamilton, looking out on the water near Genung’s Fish Camp, just south of the CR 206 Bridge. “And this is a beautiful spot.” 

He grew up on this river. On a blue-sky, fall day, it looked like a community get together was happening. A group of about a dozen people gathered at the fish camp’s small marina, shaking hands, smiling, and joking with each other.

 Hamilton put this gathering together.

 And the guest of honor arrived by boat.

 Those VIPs all fit into five buckets, really.Inside the buckets, it looks like almost-clear water. Just a little murky.

Someone tells a friend, “Go ahead and dip it in there,” advising to grab a petri dish and scoop up some of the water from the bucket.  

That water in those buckets is chock-full of microscopic clam larvae.

 Matanazas Riverkeeper Jen Lomber looks into a microscope, into the water in the petri dish and joyfully said, “There they are!”

Hamilton tells another friend who peers into the microscope, “You’re looking at a lot of little tiny clams.”

 She nodded and smiles, “They look good.”

 They may be tiny, but they’re super.

 “These are the super clams!”  Mike Sullivan nods even more.  He is an aquaculturist who has been working on this project.

 Hamilton and some of his neighbors and community groups raised $25,000 to raise and release these microscopic clams into the Matanzas River.

 “We have a community interested in taking care of our area,” Hamilton said.

 After everyone at the community gathering looked through the microscope, the boarded two boats.

 One driven by Sullivan. The other driven by University of Florida biochemist Dr. Todd Osborne.  

In the last decade or so, Osborne said, there have been fewer clams in the Matanzas River.

“We’re just not seeing them like we used to,” Osborne noted.

 But why? “We’re not sure,” he answered. “We think there has either been a dying off event, or there could’ve been a sporadic disease vector or it could be there are unknown water quality issues that we don’t measure.”

Osborne and Sullivan recently gathered the biggest, healthiest clams they could find in the Matanzas River, and they spawned millions of them in tanks at the Sullivan’s nursery and at the UF Whitney Marine Laboratory, creating the super clam.

The name super clam “means they are adept and naturally selected for this particular region where we’re putting them back out,” Osborne said. “These are the clams that have survived all kinds of traumas.”

Cup by cup, these folks set the super clams larvae loose.

Osborne noted, “No genetic enhancement other than what Mother Nature has done for us.”

He said it’s hard to tell just how many of the clams being put in that day will survive but he’s hoping or guessing about 10 to 30 percent will make it into the next year.

Twenty million clam larvae, five buckets worth, into the Matanzas River.

It’s the 23-mile-long river that runs from the St. Augustine Inlet by Vilano Beach, along downtown St. Augustine, and all the way to the Matanzas Inlet.

The goal with this project was to revive the clam population and even to help clean up the Matanzas River. Clams are after all, “the liver of the river,” Osborne beamed.

“They are pulling things out of the water column. Just like wetlands are the kidneys of the landscape, bivalves and filter feeders are the mechanism to clarify waters,” Osborne said.

As more people move into the area and build along the river, it's more susceptible to runoff, pollutants, and agents that create toxic blue-green algae that affect water quality, harms the tourism industry and threatens wildlife.

“This is the healthiest estuary on the east coast of Florida, and it is slowly declining," said Hamilton, who put this shindig together. "It’s dying. It’s getting a million paper cuts, and so this is a way to make it a tiny bit better."

Tiny bit better with teeny larvae that have a big task at hand for a place Hamilton and others call home.



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