From tide to table: Local family cultivates sustainable shellfish farming in Florida bays

About 100 yards off the mangrove shore of Sandfly Key near Boca Grande, Aaron Welch III and Zach Hunter step off the back of the boat Miss T.J. Shelley and disappear into the murky waters of Gasparilla Sound. 

The water is so cloudy that Zach doesn’t even notice the young manatee a few feet from him investigating the bubbles rising from his scuba gear. 

Other than the tattered red dive flag gently flapping aboard their temporarily abandoned boat, the bubbles boiling to the surface between white PVC markers are the only signs of the farming going on below. 

Clamming started as a hobby for Aaron Welch Jr. and Aaron Welch III, who sometimes calls himself  “Aaron the younger,’’ since he’s the son in this father & son operation. But Welch III realized that despite places like St. Petersburg and Bradenton being surrounded by what he calls “a big beautiful body of water,” there was a demand for local seafood that wasn’t being met. 

Welch III asked his dad if he’d like to start clamming as a business and a year later Two Docks Shellfish sold their first 500 clams in October of 2013 to the Beach Bistro at Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island. 

Now they are processing around 15,000 clams a week and distributing to more than 20 locations throughout Bradenton, Sarasota and St. Petersburg. Along with the Gasparilla Sound farm, they also work a Tampa Bay plot, just north of the Skyway Bridge. Both farms are on a 10-year lease from the state of Florida and include the sandy bottom and the 6 inches of water above it.

“It’s a beautiful way to produce seafood,” Welch III says. The clams are native to the region and require no artificial feed, fertilizers or chemicals — making the operation not only sustainable, but an enhancement of surrounding water quality because clams are filter feeders.

Calling on a long-time friend 

The business has also reunited him with one of his childhood friends, Zach Hunter. Hunter, whom Welch III has known for 31 of his 38 years, is Two Docks Shellfish’s first full-time hire. They’re now growing the business together with Hunter’s boat and Welch III’s clam farms while Welch Jr. mainly handles deliveries and any other needs of the business. 

Today’s harvest will also be the first for their brand new processing facility set up inside a giant green barn near the Braden River. The processing plant is run by Janet Welch (Welch Jr.’s wife and Welch III’s mom) and family friend Lorraine Gabler. Here the clams will be inspected and sorted by size; little neck (smallest), middle neck (medium) and top neck (biggest).  

“We’re getting better every week,” Welch III says, but admits that along with figuring out the small nuances that lead to the most successful clams, dealing with state regulations and the occasional loss from unlikely predators including conch, catfish and stingrays, has been quite a learning process. 

But the two Welches are no strangers to learning. Welch Jr. has a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology and Welch III earned a law degree from Emory University and a master’s degree in aquaculture from the University of Miami. And, the day before this dive, he successfully defended his thesis for his Ph.D. in Environmental Science, also from the University of Miami. Welch Jr. and Welch III are literally the two “docs” of Two Docks Shellfish.

Taking a bountiful dive 

Back underwater, the divers survey their crop and deem it’s ready to harvest. They pull a longline from the boat, which uncoils snake-like as it slips below the surface, to be tied to one corner of each large, green-mesh grow bag previously “planted” in underwater rows. 

Fisherman come and go, paying little or no attention during the whole process. Only a curious osprey circling the boat seems to notice the activity as the two continue working along the mucky bottom in seven to eight feet of water. 

After 30 minutes they fire up the boat engine and wrangle a buoy to haul the longline in via wench, bringing with it the grow bag and a years worth of sediment which is flushed before it’s raised out of the water. A few quick snips bring hundreds of the hard-shell clams pinging into a bright blue bucket in jackpot fashion, a payout for 12 months of waiting. 

The clams are a mix of light and dark with some displaying a shock of bronze color like a seismograph reading of an earthquake. Growth rings form uniform ridges radiating from the hinge of the mirrored shells forming a tiny locked treasure chest.

“Holy cow! This bag is stuffed!” exclaims Welch III as the first bag of the line exceeds his expectations. The lack of production on the second line, however, finds Hunter suiting back up to dive down for more bags to meet the order for the week — despite the fact that both were started with the same nursery seed clams and laid on the same day only 50 feet apart. 

“That’s how it goes,” says Welch III. “You never really know.”

An hour later, Hunter removes his wetsuit while Welch III picks up one of the clams just brought up from the bottom. While the Florida Division of Aquaculture oversees weekly sampling of shellfish harvesting areas, Welch III still likes to take stock by his own taste buds. Using a knife he struggles and finally separates the strong-clenched shells. 

“Quality control,” he smiles as he pops the clam in his mouth. “Yep, tastes like the ocean.” Each basket, referred to as bushel, contains 700-800 clams. Overall they end up with 17 bushels from 24 bags, progress that makes Welch III happy as he proclaims simply, “That’s a pretty good day.” 

Clams for sale

Off the water and on the road just before crossing the Skyway Bridge to St. Petersburg, the word “CLAMS” on simple white poster board is enough to get the attention of seafood lovers passing The Citrus Place on Terra Ceia Island along U.S. Highway 19. 

After offering patrons a free sample of locally made orange juice, 83-year-old owner Ben Tillett discusses the difference between Florida clams and what a man from Rhode Island calls quahogs (another name for clams common in the Northeast). While hyper-local seems to be a buzz word of recent years, his business is in its 40th year of serving local offerings, including juice made from citrus grown on the property. They have also sold a variety of local clams over the years, but Tillett says that when it comes to Two Docks Shellfish, “They do it right!” 

“Most weeks we get 28 bags, or 1,400 clams, and we generally sell out every week,” Tillet says. “We get them on Friday morning and many times we’re out by Saturday afternoon. These are just so tender with a very good taste, it’s a good quality product.”

On the other side of the Skyway Bridge, Aaron Welch Jr. arrives at Locale Market in St. Petersburg with freshly processed clams and is greeted by Jeff Houck, Locale’s Marketing and Public Relations Director. Houck grew up in St. Petersburg and remembers going to the beach with family and finding clams himself, but says that over the years the health of Tampa Bay grew worse and the clams seemed to disappear. When he heard that Two Docks was growing clams in the now much healthier waters of Tampa Bay, he was excited. 

“The quality is amazing, but supporting a local vendor in a re-emerging industry like this makes it even better.” He says the response to Two Docks and other local providers at Locale has been wonderful, “You give the customer something special, something that has a story behind it and they appreciate it. It’s great too because we get to be an incubator for Two Docks and other local businesses.” 

When Locale Market was getting started, one of co-owner Chef Don Pintabona’s main jobs was to connect with as many ranchers, fisherman, farmers and artisans as possible to find the gems that would provide high quality local products. Pintabona heard about Two Docks Shellfish but wasn’t sure that Tampa Bay and the surrounding waters could provide quality clams like the types typically associated with the cold waters of the Northeast. 

“I’ve always been a bit of a snob when it comes to bivalves,” Pintabona jokes, but says that the Welches have exceeded his expectations. Pintabona and some of the Locale staff even joined the Welches for a day on the water to learn how they harvest clams, and Welch Jr. and his wife were special guests at Locale on its opening day. 

“We want to support local (producers) and do something that is great for the area. There’s so many people, so many young farmers who just need a little spotlight on them, it’s up to us to be that light and to honor what they do,’’ says Pintabona. “It’s celebrating guys like Aaron and his father, who are so passionate about what they do and are so committed. These are some really brilliant and passionate people. The way they run their operation is an inspiration. Their product is pristine. … and we’ve got a building full of chefs, so our job is just to not screw it up!” 

A sharper, saltier taste

After Welch Jr. drops off the clams, Houck tells him that celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse’s TV show may contact him about going out on the water to film clam harvesting.

Welch Jr. replies that he’ll try to oblige, but there’s going to be so many clams he can’t guarantee there will be much room. He then tells Houck that he’s got to run, he has to deliver to Sea Salt (another popular restaurant next door) and then has another delivery across town. 

“I’m supposed to be retired!” he says, laughing as he shuffles away with more work to be done.

Inside Locale Market, the clams are presented among other local seafood with a display describing Two Docks Shellfish. A QR code scan opens a clam shucking how-to video, but the staff is happy to do the work for you, presenting your purchase on the half shell for instant gratification. Currently at 50 cents each, $2.50 yields 5 shells resembling tiny alabaster bowls of ivory colored clam meat, offered with a grilled lemon kicker if you like. 

While wine aficianados refer to the terroir of a vintage, or the flavor characteristics it picks up from its environment, clam connoisseurs recognize merroir of the sea, and according to Two Docks, Tampa Bay and the surrounding waters provide a sharper, saltier taste. This rings true upon tasting the clam’s briney bath, a pleasant burst of salty goodness against its delicate, slightly sweet and supple meat. 

Upstairs at the wine bar, the offering is more upscale as the clams co-star with Key West pink shrimp topping Tagliatelle al Nero di Seppia (noodles with squid ink) for $18 and a brand new happy hour menu item features steamed Two Docks clams with Locale Market Italian sausage pomodoro and garden herbs for $8. 

Aaron Welch III’s studies and degree work have taken him throughout Latin America and his doctorate could take him many places, but instead he has come home to Tampa Bay and his family to follow what he loves. 

Welch III says he would like to expand to at least two more farms, and according to Welch Jr., they hope to become the go-to business for clams for all of Tampa Bay. They are even experimenting with farming oysters. While they aren’t looking to go nationwide, Welch III likes the thought that if the success of the business continues, he might someday even pass it along to his 16-month-old son (Aaron Welch IV) if he is interested. 

“I love what I do, and I’d love for my son to do this,” he says, but only if he loves it too.

Read more articles by James Branaman.

James Branaman is a photographer and feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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