SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – Sarasota Bay Watch has received the state’s first underwater aquaculture lease, specifically for clam restoration and research.

The group will now be able to grow and study clams in a 4.5-acre plot of Sarasota Bay. The lease is valid for five years.

Sarasota Bay Watch Executive Director Ronda Ryan explains the lease will allow the local nonprofit to significantly expand its footprint and work within Sarasota Bay.

“The thing about having an aquaculture lease like this is that it will make our restoration purposes more effective, more economical. Rather than transporting clams, have them grow in one place, transport them, re-distribute them, there is less stress to them if they are growing and living within the same waters that they are going to be in,” said Ryan.

Sarasota Bay Watch has released more than 1.5 million clams into Sarasota Bay in the last four years. They’re on track to release 1 million more in 2022 alone.

The nonprofit aims to restore the dwindling clam population while also improving water quality.

“There is a large wave of interest in clams within the state of Florida for their filtering purposes. Even though there are areas that have clams for commercial purposes, ours are for restoration and we are using them for their filtration purposes,” Ryan explained. “They take water in that is laden with nutrients and algae and then essentially filter that out and then shoot out clean water.”

Depending on its size, each clam can filter between six and 20 gallons of water each day.

“Clams are really important part of the ecosystem. So it is not only about cleaning up water quality, but they provide habitat, they can bring back the grass, clear the water up,” said Charlie Culpepper, the assistant director of the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services division of aquaculture.

State officials are eager to see more similar projects come to fruition.

“There was a real need for a new permitting path, that streamlined large-scale restoration projects. I am happy that we were able to work with Sarasota Bay Watch for probably almost two and a half years to go through the process and get this lease set up. We are excited and I expect to see more restoration projects moving forward now that we have this opportunity,” said Culpepper.