by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Traveling the two-lane highway leading onto Cedar Key, Southern Cross Sea Farms stands as a shining star for lovers of great seafood. Their alter piled high with some of the best tasting clams raised and harvested in the Gulf of Mexico.
A vertically integrated clam business, Southern Cross Sea Farms is one of the largest clam growers in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2009, Jonathan Gill and his brother-in-law Shawn Stephenson purchased the business from Captain Bill Leeming who came up with the name while travelling the Caribbean. On a clear, starry night, Leeming looked up and saw the Southern Cross constellation.
Gill and Stephenson jumped into the clam industry after gillnet fishing was outlawed in the state of Florida more than 20 years ago.
“My dad owned a fish house and I fished for him as a gill netter until 1994 when they banned the nets in state waters,” said Gill, whose father Bob Gill is a Florida Board member of the Gulf Seafood Institute. “I took advantage of a state program designed to retrain gillnet fishermen as clam famers.”
According to Gill, his brother-in-law, a former grouper fisherman, and he started slowly in the aquaculture business as the calendar year was turning from 1995 to 1996.
“We first obtained a lease and then started planting clams,” explained Gill. “Over the years we continued to grow. We just got bigger and bigger, buying more seed, planting more crops and harvesting more clams. As we grew we started to buy more and more leases.”
“Eventually we grew so big that the local wholesalers could not buy all our product, so we purchased Southern Cross from Captain Leeming. Shawn and I decided to dive headfirst into this big adventure.”
A Big Adventure
Shawn and Jonathan’s big adventure has paid off in a big way, harvesting more than 25 million clams a year.
With the purchase of Southern Cross, the brothers-in-law’s business became a hatchery, nursery, grower and wholesaler. Southern Cross currently integrates the entire lifecycle of a clam.
The life cycle of a clam starts in the hatchery. From there they go to the nursery and when large enough, are planted on leases in the Gulf. “When they are the right size we harvest and process them, then ship them all over the country,” Gill said.
In a bit of irony, Southern Cross raises northern quahog clams. Northern quahogs are east coast clams that can be found wild from Canada down to Indian River Lagoon in Florida. The southern quahog is native to Florida, however not suited for aquaculture.
Cedar Key is one of five Gulf communities currently harvesting clams. The eastern shores of Florida, where the industry was actually founded, also has a number of clam sites, but Gulf waters allow for the bivalves to be grown quicker and easier.
Unlike its bivalve cousin the oyster, which is noted for being named after the area grown, a clam is a clam is a clam. No fancy names, just clam.
“I have never heard anyone say they prefer clams from one area or another,” said Stephenson, about their product. “We have a fairly good name. Cedar Key is known throughout the nation for producing a high quality clam.”
The hatchery and nursery operations for clams are very similar to that of its bivalve cousin the oyster, which Southern Cross has also started to venture. Unlike oysters though, clams are grown in the bottom’s substrate.
“Our leases are for bottomland only,” explained Gill. “We do not have rights to the water column.”
After spending approximately six months in the hatchery and nursery, clams are first planted in nursery bags with a special mesh to accommodate the 4mm size of the seed – smaller than that of a pinky fingernail.
After another three months, the larger clams are placed in 4’x4’ mesh bags. Once planted in the Gulf, clams then burrow causing the bottom of the bag to be buried in the mud. They then poke their siphons through the top part of the bag to feed.
And so they sit, month after month after month; until they are ready for harvest approximately one year later.
“From start to harvest, the process approximately takes the better part of two years,” said the former gillnet fishermen as he walked through tanks filled with clam spat.
The Cedar Key clammer has four boats with a crew of three harvesting almost daily. Starting with the sunrise, the crews leave the downtown Cedar Key docks and glide across the Gulf on their short trip to the 30 leases spread over 60 acres of the Gulf.
“We harvest using a system of long line ropes using an electric wench,” explained Stephenson. “We pull the clam bags up with the wench, wash them off and then stack the sacks on the boat. The boats are long, flat bottom gill net boats that have been converted to clamming.”
Clams are measured on the width. According to Stephenson, the optimum size for harvest is approximately 7/8” x 1”. “That size is our money makers. If you go bigger the clams have probably sat in the water too long, smaller they have not formed properly and will not bring a good price,” he explained.
The water surrounding Cedar Key is murky, containing tons and tons of algae needed for the clams to grow. The murky water also keeps sea grasses from flourishing. The nearby Suwannee River keeps salinity in the area ranges between 20-30 parts per thousand, well below the typical Gulf salinity of 36.
“If you would look at the water surrounding Cedar Key from an airplane you could see the encircling algae bloom,” said Stephenson about the Gulf key. “All that is nothing but food for the world’s best tasting clams.”
Cedar Key has some of fastest growing clams in the country, taking less than two years. Their northern and east coast cousins take almost double the time to grow to a harvestable size. “We can definitely grow them faster,” said the brothers-in-law in unison.
Three areas of the U.S. take a majority of Southern Cross clams. Out west, clams are flown to Las Vegas and Sacramento three times a week from the Orlando airport, a truck runs to New York twice a week, and trucks are run twice weekly to the Miami area of Southern Florida because of the number of Northerners that love their clams.
“There are not a whole bunch of clam eaters in Florida, except in the southern area around Miami,” said Gill. “I don’t pretend to understand it, Floridians that have been here forever and ever just don’t eat clams.”
When Gill and Stephenson started, a third of their clients were individual seafood restaurants or seafood markets. As they’ve grown they found they work better with distributors. Today approximately 95% of their product is sold to distributors.
“Selling to distributors just works better for us. I don’t want to sell 200 clams, I want to sell 2 million,” Gill said. “The average wholesale price of a Florida clam is 17 cents, except for pasta clams which are sold by the bag. Currently we sell more than 25 million clams a year.”
“Green” Seafood Industry
The mission of Southern Cross Sea Farms is to support and enhance the Fresh Sustainable “Green” Seafood Industry in Florida. In addition to clams, they have also started a caged grown oyster operation.
“The caged oyster industry is in a “baby phase” compared to our aquaculture clams,” said Gill. “We are also one of the two oyster hatcheries in the state producing spat for farmers. In Florida we currently are selling less than five million oyster seeds, versus the more than 100 million clams.”
Southern Cross has four leases spanning more than eight acres devoted strictly to cage grown oysters.
“Two years ago, there were no oysters in Cedar Key. Now it is one of the largest caged grown operations in the Gulf,” he said. “Before we started, Shawn went to northern California to study oyster farms while I traveled the East Coast from the Chesapeake to New Brunswick doing the same.
According to Gill, everyone told him to expect a three to four year growth period for oysters. “From the day we spawned our first oyster to harvest was just over six months,” he said. “It shocked the world. Of course it was an exceptional year. Last year we planted a million oysters. Realistically those million oysters took as much work and labor hours as the 10 million clams we harvested the same year.”
The company has experimented with a lot of growing methods: bags on bottom, floating bags, and racks on bottom. After two years the partners still cannot decide which one is right for them.
“We call our crop Cedar Point Oysters,” said Stephenson. “We grow mostly triploid oysters.”
The bivalve buddies currently sell between 15,000 -20,000 oysters a week, making them one of the largest aquaculture oyster operations in the Gulf.
“What we are doing here at Southern Cross is producing great tasting bivalves that are also great for the environment,” said Gill. “Culturing shellfish is also good for the economy and the consumer. From an ecological standpoint, shellfish aquaculture is a source of habitat enhancement and improved water quality. Our industry is environmentally friendly and sustainable marine farming at its best.”