Happy As A Clam
TWO DOCKS SHELLFISH DELIVERS FROM SHORE TO DOOR
A version of this article appeared in our sister publication, edible Sarasota, in 2014. With the opening of Locale Gourmet Market, Two Docks has expanded north of the Skyway, so we’re bringing their story to you.
Aaron Welch Jr. and Aaron Welch III grow an unusual Southwest Florida crop.
While the typical vegetable takes 30 to 90 days from seed to harvest, the Welches’ crop takes more than a year. And although they do contend with occasional predators and inclement weather, there’s never been a water shortage on their farm.
Their crop: hard-shelled clams. Their farm: the sandy bottoms of Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor. The father and son are the aquaculturists behind Two Docks Shellfish, a company with a simple goal: to provide fresh, local shellfish to Tampa Bay. For almost a year now, they’ve managed to accomplish that goal weekly.
Almost every Thursday, while Aaron Jr. mans the Carolina Skiff, four to eight feet below his feet Aaron III, accompanied by longtime family friend and fellow Bradenton native Logan Fleming, surveys the underwater farm. Clams mature enough for harvest are brought to the surface to be tumbled of shells and other critters. They are measured and sorted by size: littleneck, middle neck, and top neck. Then they are processed and, finally, delivered to markets and restaurants around Tampa Bay within 24 hours.
The epicenter of shellfish cultivation can be found off the Mid-Atlantic coast, but the Tampa Bay area, at the southern end of a clam’s natural range, still offers an ideal environment for the bivalves to serve a dual purpose: tasty treats and living water filters.
Two Docks has no plans to compete on a national level. Their focus is dominating the hyper-local market. In fact, they’re quick to say that their clams are no better than anyone else’s – they’re just different.
“Shellfish are like wine. They take on the characteristics of the place they are grown,” says Aaron III. “Our animals taste just a little bit more like Tampa Bay: a little saltier and a little sharper.”
Two Docks manages two farms in 10-year deep-water leases, for a total of eight acres of sand and the 6-inch water column above it. Their four-acre plot in Charlotte Harbor, near Gasparilla, is leased directly from the State of Florida, while the four acres in Tampa Bay, which provides the majority of their current crop, is a sublease. Between these, Two Docks is currently cultivating 1.25 million clams, with plenty of room to expand.
Two Docks Shellfish was the brainchild of Aaron III, who earned a law degree from Emory University but chose to follow a path truer to his nature.
“I grew up fishing and diving. I was totally THAT kid,” he says. “So I knew when I was in law school that being a lawyer just wasn’t gonna work.”
On how they eat a clam …
Aaron III: “Grill it till it pops open, put a little drop of Tabasco on it, and eat it.”
Aaron Jr.: “I personally like to sit in the shade with cold beer and larger middle and top necks, shuck them and eat them raw.”
Instead of taking the bar he earned his master’s degree in marine affairs from the University of Miami.
Though Two Docks was his son’s idea, Aaron Jr., a plant pathologist with a PhD and 35 years of agricultural consulting experience, has always been a key player.
“Right from the beginning [Dad] said ‘This is cool. I’m semi-retired and you’re the boss, but I’ll follow your lead.’” The elder Aaron spends most of his time above water, fixing gear, tending to the boat, mending bags and moving clams.
“I love clams. I’ve always loved them,” says Aaron Jr., who spent summers as a boy harvesting wild clams in Rehoboth Bay, Delaware, with his cousins. “So when my son came up with being aquaculturists and farming clams, it just seemed like a great idea.”
The family’s foray into underwater agriculture didn’t get serious until they recognized the demand for locally produced shellfish.
“My dad and I had been doing clamming on the side, kind of as a hobby,” says Aaron III. “But, after asking around a bit, we started to think there might be a chance to put something special together here locally.”
The Welches capitalized on existing connections with Sarasota-area restaurants and chefs, who were eager to add local shellfish to their menus. Two Docks sold their first bag of 500 littlenecks to a Sarasota restaurant owner in October of 2013.
By early the next year, they estimate they were delivering about 15,000 clams a week. That number has grown and the Welches are eager to continue to expand their local market.
With the long lead time and immense amount of planning required, Two Docks manages their planting and harvesting so that bags of clams are ready to harvest at almost any time.
“There is technique to everything in life, and planting shellfish is no exception,” says Aaron III.
It starts with tiny, four-millimeter seed clams purchased from a local hatchery. The infant clams are placed in special tight-mesh nursery bags that are essentially “planted” in the sand, where they can be monitored until they are ready to be “flipped” into wider mesh grow bags, when they reach about 12 to 14 millimeters. The wider bags allow more water to pass through and a deeper sediment burrow. Then the clams are left to mature for about 15 months.
“It’s all the right kinds of aquaculture,” says Aaron III. “You don’t have to feed them; don’t have to use any chemicals. And on top of that these animals are actively filtering, so they are cleaning the bay.”