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Happy as a Clam
By Lura Readle Scarpitti
Current photos by Brian Miller and Alexis Rhodes
Archive photos courtesy of Michael Sullivan
Talking to Michael Sullivan, owner and operator of Commander’s Shellfish Camp, as he “pushes” millions of tiny seed clams through a screen with a water hose, it’s hard to picture him in a suit and tie. In his worn-baseball cap turned backwards, cargo shorts, t-shirt (drenched from the gallons of water coming from the hose), rain boots, and shaggy white hair, he looks like the quintessential Florida outdoorsman.
“Believe it or not, I started out writing software at a firm up in Jacksonville. My degree is in mathematics and computer science.” Not exactly the kind of “science” you would expect from someone who has spent the past two decades in the clam farming and seeding industry. He just added oysters to that a year ago. “I’m no scientist,” Sullivan asserts. “I’m a computer programmer…or at least I was for 20 years.”
In the early ‘90s, tired of being confined to four walls and an office, Sullivan started looking around for something that could break him free of the constraints of the corporate world. His escape would come when a friend told him that he had met someone who had a shellfish lease, and started rattling off the numbers.
The mathematician’s mind perked up.
According to his friend; “You could grow a million clams a year per acre, and if you have five acres, that’s five million clams at ten cents a piece; that’s $500,000 a year,” Sullivan recalls, “…and all you have to do is put them in the river and they grow!”
As you can imagine, it was a little more difficult than that. Sullivan started a clam distribution business which was always struggling to find product. As a way to end that struggle, he convinced the Small Business Administration to give him a loan based on the argument that if he grew clams, he could sell them. Unfortunately, the first batch of seed he got was “not the best” and if you get bad seed, you’re not going to get good yield, if any at all. He tried to get things up and running with that batch at a site just south of the 206 bridge but it was, for all intents and purposes, a bust.
At this point, it would be good to provide you with a quick overview of the process of shellfish farming, because it’s important for understanding some of the things in the rest of the article. Like an age-old love story, it all starts with a guy and a girl. We all know the birds and the bees, right? In the shellfish world, this is called spawning, which is surprisingly more complicated than it would seem: through a lot of environmental manipulation, a female clam is coaxed into releasing eggs and a male is coaxed into releasing sperm. The eggs and sperm are combined in the hopes that a good number will end up being fertilized. In the wild, not all do. In fact, the ratio of the actual eggs fertilized to actual eggs released is very small — research shows that one out of one million clams makes it to harvest size.
That’s where the numbers come in again. When spawned in a controlled environment, Michael and company can produce such a large quantity that they end up with around ten million larvae at the end of it all. Those larvae are put into large tanks of sea water which have been extensively filtered then put through a “top secret” system which clears it of every possible impurity. When done, it’s as clear as drinking water. The hatchlings are fed with specially cultivated algae and then left alone to grow into seedlings — tiny little clams.
The seedlings are nurtured and measured as they grow. Sullivan says that making sure they are growing at a good rate is crucial to the process. “Out of the approximately ten million seedlings we’ll get from an average spawning, I’ll keep about seven million by the time we’re done. The remaining seedlings that aren’t growing well aren’t good enough for us, because they will take longer to grow, and I refuse to sell that product. We put those out in the river where they either grow on their own or become part of the ecosystem by being food for fish, crabs and the rest of the critters out there.”
Right now, Sullivan is more focused on the seed business than the farming business. It’s the numbers once again.
“It just makes sense, because I can get the them to where they’re ready to move onto to the next step and sell them to somebody who will take it from there; much less work than doing that, and then moving onto staging, planting and harvesting, where we have to get them big enough to survive in the river and then take them out to our leases,” Sullivan explains. Exponentially more work than seeding. Plus, at each step, they risk something happening which can destroy everything they’ve worked for up to this point. So many factors can lead to the animals dying off, meaning a lot of work will be for nothing.
For a better grasp of what this means, Sullivan holds up a plastic pitcher containing something that looks like silt from the bottom of the Intracoastal Waterway. It is actually about five million seedlings which will, if they get to the point where they are river ready, fetch $50,000. That’s a heck of a number. It’s the same process for oysters, but Sullivan’s experience up to now has been with clams. He is just started with oysters a year ago, both farming and seeding, and will be harvesting his first effort later this year.
After Sullivan’s initial failure back in 1992, he kept at it and eventually partnered up with John Bollman of JB’s Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach, an extremely popular seafood restaurant located on the water just south of the town. A favorite of locals and visitors alike, JB’s has always had a reputation for some of the best tasting shellfish anywhere on the East Coast of Florida. In 1995, through the partnership with Bollman, Sullivan ended up with 36 acres of underwater leases, at two separate locations just north of the Canaveral National Seashore estuary, one of the richest in the state. With Sullivan working the operation, he and Bollman built one of the most successful clam farming and seeding businesses in Florida.
“At one point, I was selling fiftythousand clams a week to Disney”… yes, the Big Mouse. At twenty cents a clam, well, do the math. That’s a LOT of clams, the money kind. “I was selling $10,000 dollars a week to Disney alone, because they knew my product was the best that could be found. We had chefs that we invited over to JB’s and we would treat them to these great dinners, serve them our clams and they would always ask for our product first.” He was there for 16 years and then…
“Through mismanagement of the water resources, the water that flowed through where my beds were located changed, and the quality of my clams went downhill, fast. My business, which employed 14 people full-time, and was thriving, was suddenly gone.”
Sullivan pretty much lost everything. With the clam beds gone, he had to find a place to relocate the business, and quickly. The opportunity to, in essence, come back to where it all started, to his leases just south of the 206 bridge presented itself, and Sullivan took it. Why? Simply put, it’s the water. Due to the careful management and monitoring done by not just one, but many entities in the area, the water here, around Devil’s Elbow south of the 206 bridge, is the best you can find anywhere along the coast, from the Georgia border to well south of here.
“It’s all about the water quality,” says Sullivan. “That’s THE MOST important factor in this business. Things like fertilizer and septic tanks that are buried just a hundred yards from the river and environmental toxins like oil and gasoline from cars that get into the river as run-off when it rains or when we have these crazy high tides affects the estuary. We’re lucky that we have organizations in place like the folks at Marineland, and Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Esturine Research Reserve that try to protect our waterways. The county environmental department and the South Anastasia Community Association are great, too.” Even though the seedlings start off getting a diet of the best algae they can be given, when they reach a certain size, they get put into tanks of water that come directly from the river. If that water has issues, they’re not going to make it. Case in point, on the day Sullivan was interviewed for this story, he was working five million seedlings. Three days later, they had all died because of environmental issues with the water from heavy rains and run-off in the area over the previous week.
$50,000…dead in the water (or because of the water).
“For the most part, the river is healthy, but when the planets align, and we get the crazy high tides that go up into the swales, all of the pollution that’s gathered there — pesticides, fertilizer, run-off from the roads — it messes with the water. People don’t think about how their actions affect the water when they don’t live near it, but pollution away from the river gets washed into drainage ditches which carries it to here. I had ten million clams ready to go out and we lost maybe half of them to this latest perfect storm of super high tides from the full moon, combined with torrential rains. When people start complaining about the high price of shellfish and wonder why, well, that’s why. If there’s not good water, it affects planting, growth, and harvesting…and it all comes back to their actions on land.”
Even with that latest die-off, it is better here than anywhere else, especially for clams, Sullivan started to cultivate seed here in 2016 and was harvesting clams shortly after. He’s even managed to get Disney back onboard, though not nearly at the level they were before. Nowadays the company buys around three to four thousand clams from Sullivan per week, not fifty thousand like before. That’s by choice though.
“Thing is, do I want to work harder, or smarter?” Sullivan asks. “That’s where it comes down to the question of farming versus seeding. I’m 66 years old and I work seven days a week. I keep thinking it’s time for me to take a day or two off every now and then. If I expand the farming, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
As a way to showcase the fruits of his labor, and of the sea, Sullivan opened a raw bar restaurant at Commander’s (named after his father, whom everyone calls “The Commander,” because of his final rank as Commander in the Navy, and his service during WWII) on the same plot of land where his operation sits. Open Thursday through Sunday, it gives Sullivan the chance to offer his delicious fare right from the river to his tables. “My clams casino are out of this world. They’re the most popular thing on the menu… and that’s saying something, because we have our farmed clams, local river oysters (Sullivan has a bit more work to do before he can harvest and serve his own oysters), local white and Royal Red shrimp (can only be tasted to describe how delicious they are), homemade New England Chowder and snow crab legs.
“I’m really picky about what we serve here. I have to know how it was handled before I’ll even consider it.” The restaurant, which opened June 14th, was an instant hit. With a true farm-to-table mission to supply not only his own restaurant, but also, the entire Northeast Florida area with the freshest and best clams and oysters around, and with the response he’s been getting, Sullivan is optimistic about the future of his operation. But he admits that his optimism will only last as long as the emphasis on smart water management remains as intense as it has been in the past. “St. Johns County is one of the best in terms of doing this right. Look at these things,” he says, dipping a hand into a barrel full of miniature oysters waiting to be put into trays and then out to the beds, “…they’re the ‘canaries in our coal mine.’ They’re the indicator of the river’s health. And if the river goes, with all that it means to the area, it’s not just my business that goes. We will all suffer the loss.”