The St. Augustine Issue

The Commander's Shellfish Camp

Matt Titone

An interview with Mike Sullivan: clam farmer, restaurateur, advocate for clean rivers.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

How and why did you get started with farming clams?

I have a degree in Mathematics and Computer Science and I wrote software from 1982 through 2001. In 1992 I became interested in finding something new to do — outside. I was tired of being cooped up inside all the time with a computer. A friend told me of this wonderful thing called aquaculture where you “farmed” shellfish in the river. It sounded interesting and after investigating the opportunity with the state, I committed part time. I began in St Augustine with 8 acres. Being energetic, I started looking for more acreage and being refused in St Augustine, I looked to the south and found Acreage avail- able in New Smyrna Beach in the North Indian River Lagoon. I began “spawning” and “nursing” clam seedlings there in 1996. By 2012, with 14 full time employees, I was selling 50,000 hard clams per week to the resorts of Disney, Hyatt, Mariott, and Ritz Carlton. Also I was selling 40-50 million seedlings for grow out by farmers of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. In 2008, the state began a 5 year project to “restore wetlands” in the area surrounding my 34 acres of leas- es with the idea that mother nature would finish the job. It left my farmland unusable. In 2012 I purchased a lease in Crescent Beach and again began to farm there.

Describe the process a clam goes through, from “farm to table” so to speak.

I begin by “ripening” brood stock in a temperature controlled tank. When the clams are ready, I “spawn” them collecting and mixing the “eggs” and “sperm” in a “larval” tank where the re- side for 10-12 days swimming and eating. When they develop the “foot” they drop to the bottom and change into a bottom dwelling clam. After a 10 more day stay in the “hatchery” they are moved to the “nursery” where they are fed and washed every day going from 300 microns to 7-8 millimeters diameter. At this time they are put in a 4’x4’ bag with 4mm holes and placed in the river on the shellfish lease bottom. After 3 months the bag is brought in and the clams are sized again and placed in a bag with 10mm holes. They will grow out to harvest size in another 8 months or so.

What is unique about this area / region for farming clams and shellfish?

This area is good because the tidal surge is 4-5 feet 2 times a day. This brings in clean ocean water. We are also between two inlets that really gives us a good flush.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Farmers of all kinds are in my opinion some of the best people to ask about environmental issues — especially on a local scale. That said, what sorts of changes to your area and the natural habitat have you noticed over the years?

When I started in 1992, active clam farms populated the east coast of Florida from Sebastian to St. Augustine. Over the years, mismanagement of water re- sources coupled with increased population around watershed areas has caused the degradation of water quality and has eliminated most of the east coast Florida farms. I had to move my farm from New Smyrna Beach to Crescent Beach for both grow out and hatchery/nursery operations. I can no longer produce the volume of food clams for consumption as the physical tide conditions here make mass planting and harvesting difficult.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Why is your restaurant called Commander’s Shellfish Camp — what’s the story behind the name?

The shellfish camp was named in honor of my father, Commander Harold H Sullivan. During his 30 year naval career he rose from a sailor to the rank of Commander. After surviving the attack of Pearl Harbor, he was awarded 6 surface commands during his career. He has been a huge influence in my life as well as the lives of my 2 brothers and sister. We have all worked together to make it a tribute to his career and our appreciation of our heritage.

How many clams do you harvest per year?

Currently we harvest about 10,000 per week. We are down in stocks because of two bad planting seasons due to hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

What do you want people to know about the farming you do here and agriculture in general?

I would ask that any construction in the watershed and directly on the river would be done with retention areas for run off. I would ask that coastal residents refrain from “lush” yards of grasses and vegetation that require pesticides and fertilizers that could run off into the river. This includes areas by creeks and ditches that when over flooded run into the river. These could be miles from the river. NEVER pour contaminants such as gasoline, oil, paint, or any type of chemical on the ground, always dispose of it properly. A river is a very fragile balance of life. Once it has been compromised, it is very difficult to reverse.

This article was originally published in our St. Augustine issue and was made possible with the support of  Vans, Design Within Reach, and Flexfit.

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Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio and now resides a bit further north in Oxnard.

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