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Many commercial fishermen in Florida faced a tough decision 20 years ago: retire or find another way to make a living. That reality set in after voters passed a constitutional amendment intended to prevent overfishing. It banned the use of gill nets in state waters. Gill nets are large nets that are suspended vertically in the water. NPR's Greg Allen went to an island where former fishermen have found new careers since the ban.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For more than 150 years, Cedar Key has been an important fishing community. On Florida's Gulf Coast, it's near where the peninsula meets the panhandle. In the mid-1800s, a railroad ran here, carrying fish, oysters, sponges and other products to the East Coast. Today, instead of fishing, many here are farming. The cash crop is clams.
JOHN GILL: This is where we start every clam.
ALLEN: John Gill is co-owner of Southern Cross Sea Farms, a clam producer and wholesaler in Cedar Key. He shows visitors the hatchery where the clams spawn and the nurseries where they grow from the size of a grain of sand to that of an aspirin tablet. From here, they're placed in large mesh bags and staked to the sea floor. In a year and a half or so, they'll be ready for harvest.
The finished product, Northern quahog clams, are sorted here in the processing room. Then they're bagged and are ready to be shipped across the country.
GILL: These guys are going to Vegas tomorrow. I'm guessing these are Sacramento tomorrow. They'll fly to Sacramento. These are going to Miami.
ALLEN: Today, the vast majority of Florida's clams come from Cedar Key. It's a $40 million-a-year industry. Southern Cross co-owner Shawn Stephenson says, 20 years ago, most of those now farming clams were hauling fish from these waters.
SHAWN STEPHENSON: It was mostly mullet, but we would also catch sea trout, Spanish mackerel, sheepshead, but it was mainly mullet.
ALLEN: In 1994, Florida voters approved the constitutional amendment banning the use of gill nets, which pretty much killed Cedar Key's fishing industry, putting hundreds of people here out of work. But a joint federal state retraining effort began teaching former fishermen how to farm clams. Stephenson says for many it's paid off.
STEPHENSON: None of us had any idea how successful the clam business would be.
ALLEN: Where mullet had once rained, the clam is king. It's a success story in which Leslie Sturmer has played a key role. She's an extension agent with the University of Florida who came to Cedar Key to help oversee that retraining project.
LESLIE STURMER: OK. So this is our clam shack.
ALLEN: Until Sturmer and her colleagues brought Northern quahogs to the area, clams weren't harvested in this part of Florida. As it turned out, though, the clams sold as littlenecks for middlenecks, thrived in the warm algae rich waters of the Gulf.
STURMER: Even today, I can say this is still one of the best growing areas in the nation for hard clams.
ALLEN: With water conditions so good, the biggest challenge was cultural, convincing freewheeling fishermen to settle down on a two-acre sea-bottom lease and farm clams.
STURMER: So you should have seen the guys when they first put on their first wetsuits and got out of the boat into the water, not normal. But today, you go downtown and everybody's in a wetsuit.
ALLEN: Fishermen don't get out of their boats, usually.
STURMER: No, no, no.
ALLEN: Clamming has been so good for Cedar Key that town leaders call the island Clamalot. But you don't have to dig deep to find lingering bitterness about the event that helped spark the clam industry here. On Highway 24, as you enter the island on the side of the road is a wooden cross draped with fishing net. Sue Colson(ph) says it was put up by people in the community after Florida voters approved the net ban.
SUE COLSON: It was a symbol that was placed on a lot of people's T-shirts in town and it was a sentence that said: Forgive them, Father, they know not what they have done.
ALLEN: Colson is now a city commissioner here, even two decades later, she calls the net ban a wound. But because of clam aquaculture, Colson says Cedar Key has become a model for the rest of Florida. So safeguard water quality important for shellfish, the community eliminated septic systems and built controls for storm water runoff. Cedar Key has also banned sea walls, Colson says, to protect the shoreline.
COLSON: That's something all of Florida should do and all of Florida along the edges of Florida, including the Florida Keys, should get rid of septic tanks.
ALLEN: Over the last 150 years, the small island has been many things: a sea port and railroad hub, a center for logging and commercial fishing. Now, with clam aquaculture, it's developed a new identity as a sustainable coastal community. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.