A small beach town is on the verge of making a major difference.

Bradenton Beach, our small beach town, is facing several environmental and economic challenges and is doing something about it. Located on Anna Maria Island, it is the only place with three national estuaries — Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor.

Along with two other cities on the island, they are developing the most progressive stormwater management and capital improvement programs of any barrier island in the nation to mitigate runoff into marine waters and address sea level rise.

In 2018, most of coastal Florida experienced one of the worst red tide outbreaks in recent history. The impact was devastating to our marine environment and economy. Red tide is a naturally occurring organism that is worsened by nutrient loading runoff. In 2018, Mote Marine Lab recorded the highest cell counts of red tide ever measured in south Sarasota Bay. While other species including manatees and dolphins were killed, crabs and clams survived.

Clams are filter feeders that promote a healthy sea floor, much like worms improve soil. Harmful algal blooms are a nationwide problem. The economic impacts can be devastating to coastal communities from the nutrient loading that flows into our Gulf of Mexico from farms via the Mississippi River.

Bradenton Beach responded with an ambitious effort to promote bivalve aquaculture to address the water quality and economic development. Bradenton Beach honors its history of being a working waterfront. Historic Cortez Fishing Village is next to our island. In the U.S., more than 90% of seafood we consume is imported — 50% percent of that is aquaculture. It’s the second biggest trade deficit in the U.S. at $14 billion last year. The U.S. ranks 16th in the world in aquaculture production.

We need environmentally friendly solutions to clean water and promote environmentally sound aquaculture. Clams do that. One acre of seagrass can sequester as much carbon as 30 acres of forest. Michael P. Crosby, Ph.D., president/chief executive officer of Mote Marine Lab, says if you want more seagrass, plant clams. Clams dig around and improve the sea floor. Their waste stream fertilizes seagrass. Since they are filter feeders they clean approximately five gallons of water a day for a middleneck-sized clam. Cleaner water allows more light through the water column promoting photosynthesis which promotes seagrass growth.

The cities of Anna Maria Island are leaders in sustainability and protecting our environment. Local restaurants started the Gulf Coast Oyster Restoration and Recycling program where their clam and oyster shells are recycled and used for shoreline restoration, which has shown to improve bivalve growth by 27%. This local restoration and recycling program, which was started in conjunction with the University of Florida IFAS/Sea Grant program, Manatee County Department of Parks and Natural Resources, Solutions to Avoid Red Tide and The Tampa Bay Estuary Program and The Chiles Restaurant Group, is now the largest program of its kind of any county in the state. In 2018, Bradenton Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency board initiated the brood stock clam restoration effort by purchasing from a local clam farmer 100,000 clams that had become too big to sell due to extended red tide closures.

We have 287,000 acres of shellfish-approved waters in our state. Only 1% are leased. With three national estuaries on our border we are one of the best places in the country to raise clams. We need incentives to encourage bivalve aquaculture. Bradenton Beach and its CRA board are leading the effort to create a fund for brood stock clam restoration and to have clams certified for mitigation credits. If successful, this effort will provide an ongoing funding source for brood stock clam restoration by certifying clams for mitigation credits.

This can be a tremendous boon to improving our marine waters while preserving our values and heritage of working waterfronts. It will promote economic development while furthering the branding of our area as a place that is leading the charge toward sustainability with high quality, sustainable seafood.

Please assist by encouraging others to contact their local legislators to support House Bill 3829 and writing or calling Gov. Ron DeSantis and asking him to certify clams for mitigation credits.

Ed Chiles owns three waterfront restaurants on Anna Maria Island, the Sandbar, Beach House and Mar Vista, is a founding member of the Gulf Shellfish Institute and lives in Anna Maria.