Super Clams Save the Day

New hope for combating pollution in the Indian River Lagoon comes in the form of “super clams”

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Super clams bred at the Whitney Laboratory are dropped into the Indian River Lagoon to help filter the water naturally. Courtesy of Dr. Loraé Simpson
Super clams bred at the Whitney Laboratory are dropped into the Indian River Lagoon to help filter the water naturally. Courtesy of Dr. Loraé Simpson

Most of us are aware of the decline of the Indian River Lagoon in recent years due to excess nutrients from fertilizer, runoff, and septic tanks. This pollution promotes harmful algal blooms that kill off aquatic resources such as seagrass, a foundation of the aquatic food chain. Ultimately, that lack of food source eventually kills off marine life—like our beloved manatees. Recently, scientists are attacking that pollution with a new weapon: “super clams.”

Hard clams naturally filter water and siphon harmful algae and other pollutants. But in recent years, the population of clams in the lagoon has decreased significantly for a variety of reasons including poor water quality and overharvesting. In 2018, a team of researchers from the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory of Marine Bioscience searched the Indian River Lagoon for clams and found fewer than 50. 

That number may sound discouraging, but those 50 clams gave researchers hope. If these clams could survive a harsh ecosystem, then their offspring may have a chance too. The Whitney Laboratory team got straight to work, breeding the clams and collaborating with the Florida Oceanographic Society to distribute them throughout the southern section of
the lagoon.

Super clams bred at the Whitney Laboratory. Courtesy of Dr. Loraé Simpson
Super clams bred at the Whitney Laboratory. Courtesy of Dr. Loraé Simpson

“The clams they found in the Indian River Lagoon are somehow genetically predisposed to survive the current environment,” says Loraé Simpson, Florida Oceanographic Society’s director of scientific research and conservation. “The Whitney took those survivors back to the lab and spawned them, those nursery-raised native clams were given to us, and we put them back into the lagoon.”

In September, Simpson and her team, along with the help of volunteers, distributed 55,000 super clams in the Indian River Lagoon near the Florida Oceanographic Society. Combined with Whitney Lab’s other collaborators throughout the Indian River area, 18 million clams—and counting—have been distributed from Martin County up to the Ponce Inlet in Volusia County since 2019.

The idea is that these new clams will help clean the water, allowing seagrass to sprout and manatees to thrive. “Clams are filter feeders, and that’s going to reduce the turbidity in the water,” explains Simpson. “They make the water a lot clearer, which helps seagrass grow, as it needs sunlight to photosynthesize. The clams clean the water, the seagrass grows, and marine life like manatees can eat.”

This spring, Florida Oceanographic Society will be leading clam-deployment volunteer opportunities focused on the Indian River Lagoon. Says Simpson: “It’s the best volunteer event because you just go out with a handful of clams and throw them into the water—and the clams do the rest of the work,” she says.

What You Can Do

4 ways you can help keep the Indian River Lagoon cleaner

  • Limit or stop fertilizer usage. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus that ends up in the lagoon drives algal blooms, which are detrimental to the health of the species that live in our lagoon. 
  • Consider converting your septic to sewer, as the system is a large source that affects the Indian River. 
  • Advocate for clean water policies by contacting your local and state government officials. 
  • Volunteer with Florida Oceanographic Society’s upcoming clam-distribution events. Click here for information on future deployments and other volunteer work. 

Tips provided by Dr. Loraé Simpson, Florida Oceanographic Society’s director of scientific research and conservation

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