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Love for the lowly shellfish

Can a shellfish create jobs while resuscitating our Southwest Florida bays?

“If we had those filter feeders back — the clams, oysters, scallops, pen shells — they are the worker bees of the bay," said Larry Stults of Sarasota Bay Watch. His small navy of volunteers assists in two projects aimed at restoring Sarasota Bay's once abundant scallop beds.

"They are filtering water 24-7, they are eating plankton and they are helping remove sediment," Stults said. “The end result is the water is clearer, the sun gets down further so you can have more sea grass, and more of those filter feeders.

“I keep calling it a virtuous cycle. If you start at the base, everything is happier all the way up.”

Among the 25 groups competing for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation's $400,000 Blue Economy Challenge grant, a couple revolve around shellfish.

Gulf Coast Pearls is a group headed by Matt Gamel, who grew up in the Englewood area and is living on a vintage 35-foot sailboat off Captiva Island while working on his master's degree at Florida Gulf State University.

Then there is the complex but promising BioMop project, which would harness the water-filtering power of the lowly oyster to clean the heavily polluted and cloudy water that enters the bays from our yards, parking lots and marinas.

Another is the Sunray Venus clam project proposed by Curtis Hemmel, founder of the Bay Shellfish Co. in northern Manatee County.

Hemmel originally planned to submit a proposal for the Gulf Coast grant, for which the foundation will announce five finalists Friday, but he was too busy keeping his clams alive. Known as Florida's "clam king," Hemmel produces roughly 300 million baby clams each year at his Terra Ceia hatchery.