The March meeting of the St. James City Civic Association featured a presentation by Roy Kibbe, owner of Jug Creek Seafood Farm Raised Clams.
Kibbe is a third generation fisherman who came to Pine Island in 1972 from the shores of Lake Erie. His family lived in Matlacha and he and his brothers worked at blue crabbing, stone crabbing and grouper fishing in the waters behind his house. He ultimately became one of the major blue crab producers in the area, employing 54 crabbers.
Kibbe opened his fish house in 1996, buying fish from local fishermen to sell to the public. Then, in 1998, he and his three brothers decided to go into the newly emerging clam farming industry growing a hybrid cross between northern and southern hard shell clams. With the financial backing of an investor, Kibbe and his brothers obtained leased beds of two feet of the bottom of Pine Island Sound where they planted seed clams in mesh bags, 10,000 per bag, thinning them out and monitoring them until they reached market size in 1 to 1 1/2 years.
Jug Creek Seafood grew into the largest producers of farm raised clams in the state of Florida growing 65 million clams annually on 14 acres of sea bottom.
Unable to obtain seed clams locally in sufficient quantities on the east coast, the company hooked up with a hatchery in Seattle which could supply all they needed.
"When we get the seeds from the hatchery, you can hold 1 million in your hand they are so small," Kibbe noted. "When they mature, it takes several tractor trailers to transport them to market."
Unfortunately, around 2000, the red tide came with a vengeance. Red tide is a higher than normal concentration of a microscopic alga in the water. "Previously, red tide would come for a short time, then leave," Kibbe explained. "But the State of Florida developed new guidelines whereby the clams of just one farmer would be tested and, if found to be contaminated by red tide, the whole area fishery would be shut down, sometimes for 10 or 11 months. It wasn't fair, but that was the way it was."
It made sense for the company to lease growing beds, in addition to the 14 acres they had in Pine Island Sound, in other areas of the state not as susceptible to red tide. Kibbe secured four-acre beds in Collier and Dixie Counties and a two-acre bed near Fort Pierce. This assured that, when the beds off Pine Island could not be harvested, clams would be available for the large markets to which the company sold such as Fulton Fish Market in New York City.
"When you take on a contract from Publix or Winn-Dixie," Kibbe said, "you make sure you can provide the product or you will be penalized."
Another problem arising from long closures of the clam beds was not being able to harvest mature clams.
"Littleneck and middleneck are the most purchased clams," Kibbe said."Once they get to be topneck sized, they start to die."
Kibbe and his brothers continued farming clams and growing their business, including establishing the largest seed nursery in the state, until Hurricane Charley hit in 2004.
"That storm took everything we had," Kibbe recalled. "We had a building to store our equipment that was rated secure up to 150 mile-an-hour winds and we had it insured. It blew 152 and the building was just gone. Our insurance only covered 1 or 2 percent of the loss."
For the next six years the brothers farmed on a small scale and worked crabbing to raise money to resume their clam farming. They had salvaged some of the equipment and still had the leased beds and were about to plant 10 million seed clams when the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Not knowing how the spill might impact our beds, I called the Farm Bureau to see if we could get insurance," Kibbe said. "I was told insurance would only cover natural disasters and the spill was man made."
The clam farming aspect of the business has been pretty stagnant since 2010 and Kibbe does not know what the future will hold.
"We did plant two million clams this year and we're taking a chance doing that without man made disaster insurance. And, of course, we still have to deal with red tide," he said.
Kibbe is of the opinion that releasing water from Lake Okeechobee is partially responsible for the red tide outbreaks.
"Back in the '70s, when I was a kid, you rarely saw red tide. Then with all the development, houses along the shore and up and down the canals, pesticides, fertilizers, etc., it caused the red tide to bloom more frequently," he said.
Kibbe and others did studies of the water in the sound after every time the locks were opened.
"Between 14 and 20 days after the locks were opened, red tide would bloom," he said. "We told the state our findings but they wouldn't pay any attention."
These days Kibbe's brothers all have landed jobs, but he continues to work the family business at the end of Palm Avenue in St. James City.
"Monday, Wednesday and Friday I am out on the water," he said while sorting and weighing crab claws at his fish house. "Tuesday and Thursday I'm onshore helping out in the fish house or fish market."