Clam fishermen

These clams, being harvested in Cedar Key, are washed and sorted at on-shore processing facilities before being bagged for sale. Clam farming is an important business in Florida. / All photos courtesy of Amy Stuart of UF/IFAS

Clams and clam farming are at home in Florida’s warm waters. Hard-shell clams grow wild on our East Coast, as they do all the way up to Prince Edward Island, Canada.

On the Gulf of Mexico side, though, only Sunray Venus are native, and not in abundance. Their population was nearly extinguished in the early 1900s by over-collecting.

“We consumed ourselves out of it,” says Betty Staugler, the Charlotte County extension agent for Florida Sea Grant.

Today, clamming has become a sizable business in the state, in a controlled way: through clam farming. About a dozen companies have hatcheries where they produce clam “seeds” and nurture the tiny, rice-size shellfish. Then, 150 or so clam farmers around the state buy those toddlers, place them in mesh bags, secure the bags on the bottom of waters they lease from the state.

Clam farming not a fast process

Finally, after 2½ to three years, they collect them as grown clams. They sell to state-licensed wholesalers, eager to get the popular shellfish.

Clam farming grew in 1994, after Florida banned net-fishing, thus limiting the use of gill and entanglement nets. That threw a bunch of folks — sometimes multigenerational families — out of work, so the state retrained many in clam farming, a sustainable seafood business.

Not only doesn’t clam farming deplete wildlife, but the clams filter water, so they leave it clean.

Freshly harvested clams.

Freshly harvested clams.

State is 2nd-largest producer of hard clams

The hard clam is Florida’s “bread and butter” clam, making up 98 percent of production, says Leslie Sturmer, an extension agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension/Florida Sea Grant. Florida is the second-largest producer of hard clams in the U.S., trailing only Virginia.

And consumers are clamoring for them. Sales of clams rose 68 percent from 2005 to 2013.

The interest in Venus clams also is on the rise. At least 10 aquaculture farmers were experimenting with Venus clams by 2013, with more involved today. The native species has a sweet flavor and an attractive shell with a sunburst design.

When cooked, the shell’s interior takes on a pearly pink hue. This breed is harder to farm, but it grows quickly, and chefs like both the appearance and the flavor of the meat, so research on them is underway.

Florida Food & Farm introduces you to two clam farmers — one who has been making a living off Florida’s waters for decades, and another who’s new to the shell game.

From seed to plate

Southern Cross Sea Farms, Cedar Key

Most Florida clam farms buy their seeds, but not Southern Cross. This Cedar Key operation is vertically integrated.

“We work with the clams at every stage of their life,” says Jon Gill, in his mid-40s, who owns the operation with partner Shawn Stephenson. “We begin by spawning clams in our hatchery. Then they go to our nursery, then to our state ‘submerged leases’ (essentially, rented spots in the Gulf of Mexico). At the end, we harvest and process the market-size clams and ship them all over the country.” The entire “seed-to-plate” process takes about two years.

Southern Cross deals in hard clams; i.e., the Northern quahog known as Venus (Mercenaria) mercenaria, which grows naturally from Florida’s Indian River Lagoon up the East Coast into Canada. “There are no native populations on our (the Gulf) side,” he notes, “and none survive unless they’re farmed, so we use bags to protect them. Our operation is sustainable. We’re not harvesting something wild.”

Forced to learn new vocation

The clam business is relatively new for Gill and Stephenson, who began as net and commercial grouper fishermen, respectively. When the state banned their livelihood of net-fishing in 1994, the team learned to farm clams under the state’s retraining program.

“We experimented with Northern and Southern quahogs 20 years ago when we started, but the Southerns’ shelf life wasn’t as good, so we chose the Northern,” Gill explains.

They’ve made their livelihoods by tending to these little-necks ever since, yet, like any farmers, they face new challenges regularly. “Our biggest issue is lack of seeds,” he reports. “The hatchery isn’t able to produce enough seeds.”

Why? “I can’t tell you. I really don’t know. Probably a multitude of reasons.”

As it turns out, “The shortages are in part due to the wet winters we’ve had,” says Sturmer, the IFAS agent. “We’re going to have another wet winter, with El Niño coastal flooding; and bivalves are very, very sensitive to environmental parameters,” she notes. “This is happening two years in a row now.”

Southern Cross has made it through two decades, though, and Gill remains undeterred.

New “docs” on the block

Two Docks Shellfish, Bradenton

That docks in the name? That’s a pun. They are docs, as in “Ph.D.” — father Aaron Welch Jr., who has a doctorate in plant pathology; and son Aaron III, with a Ph.D. in aquaculture plus a law degree. The Welches represent new Florida clammers. In fact, this family business started only about five years ago.

Their business is hard clams. But, like so many colleagues, they’re also tinkering with Sunray Venus clams and oysters.

“We got into hard clams first because the knowledge base is there,” Aaron III, explains. “With the others, we’re sort of learning as we go.” While hard clams are happy to sit tight for months in bags at the bottom of the water, the Sunray Venus are more active, he observes.

“They seem to be more sensitive to stress, and they seem to want more of a sandy sediment instead of a muddy one, but we don’t entirely know.”

Keeping mum

Two Docks is working on modifications that will keep the Sunray Venuses happier, but Welch had to clam up about details.

“I’ll get into trouble,” he says. “Everyone is excited, everyone wants to improve the process, but guys aren’t sharing details.”

Two Docks starts by buying hard-clam seeds that are 4 millimeters in size, “a little bigger than the head of your pen.” They plant them in fine mesh bags until they grow to about 13 millimeters. Then they re-bag the clams in sacks, with larger mesh and extra room to roam.

Nine to 12 months later, the bivalves are ready for harvesting. The process takes a year to 18 months, and about 50 percent survive the entire cycle.

In recent months, Two Docks hasn’t been allowed to harvest at all. The algae called “red tide” has been out in force. “The algae, dinoflagellates, don’t harm the clams,” Welch explains. “The clams eat and process it. But the shell itself has a toxin in it, and that toxin can make human consumers sick.”

Cooking won’t make a difference. Both of Two Docks’ farm sites — in Charlotte Harbor and Tampa Bay — were shut down in early 2016 until the red tide passed.

Florida clams among safest seafoods

IFAS’s Sturmer says that consumers have little to worry about if they eat Florida clams, saying they’re among the most regulated seafoods in the country. “There are national and state standards that must be met in waters where clams are harvested.”

Dozens of monitoring stations on both coasts constantly measure bacteria in the water. Leases and clam-harvest areas are shut down if tight measures are not met, and reopened when completely safe.

Is Welch sorry to have taken on this new endeavor? Absolutely not, he says.

“I wouldn’t have gotten into it if it didn’t have huge potential,” he explains. “Clams are a beautiful product. We can produce them in Florida faster than up North. I can try oysters, Sunray Venus clams and even bay scallops if I want. The world wants nothing more than seafood, so the pie is growing. And this is a beautiful way to produce seafood. It’s environmentally friendly. I am confident we’ll be able to work through the challenges.”

This story, which has been updated slightly, originally ran in the Spring 2016 edition of Florida Food & Farm magazine.