Aaron Welch, III (standing front) and Marc Scott of Two Docks Shellfish cruise through Tampa Bay on the way to harvest clams. Photo: Two Docks Shellfish

by Ed Lallo, Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor News Editor

In the midst of a Florida field beseeched with palmettos and pines, Two Docks Shellfish is not your typical Gulf aquaculture business.  A lawyer, a PhD, a Master and a biologist comprise the brain trust running the successful Bradenton clamming and oyster aquaculture operation.

Aaron Welch, III comes from a long line of Aarons.  He and his father, Aaron Welch, Jr., started the clamming operations in 2014 after he attended a seminar featuring a session on aquaculture.

Aaron Welch, III (l-r) visits with Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation president Jim Gossen, with Marc Scott and Aaron Welch, Jr at their company headquarters in Bradenton. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“After serving for five years as the navigation officer aboard a US Navy guided missile destroyer, I got out of the military searching for a direction to my life,” he said sitting in the companies office housed in metal outbuilding.  “I attended a session with a speaker talking about aquaculture.   I was just blown away.  I sitting at the back of the room, I got up and made my way to the front. I got out of that presentation and called my wife and said, ‘I know what I am going to do with my life.’”

The speaker was University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Professor Daniel Benetti.  Already a graduate of Emory University Law School, Welch went on to study aquaculture under Benetti where he received his Ph.D.

Aaron Welch, III checks the freshness of clams before getting ready to ship to a local customer. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

“While I was finishing grad school at the University of Miami and working as a buy Nashville crawfish aquaculture consultant, mostly in Latin America and Panama, my dad and I started clamming as a hobby,” he told Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor News. “Instead of playing golf and drinking beer, or going fishing and drinking beer, we were clamming and drinking beer.”

Located on land that resembles a southern plantation, Two Docks Shellfish sits adjacent to a DuPont agricultural test farm where Aaron Welch, Jr., who has a PhD in Plant Pathology from North Carolina State University, served as manager until his retirement.

The closely-knit operation primarily farm clams, but is also starting to work with oysters.  In addition they grow the new Florida Sunray Venus clams when seed is available. Most of the production comes from farm sites in Tampa Bay, with their Gasparilla Island and Pine Island leases used for seed production.

Clam Diving

Marc Scott prepares to dive for clams wearing the Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation’s “Helping Hands” gloves. Photo: Two Docks Shellfish

The Bradenton operation clam farm are located in relatively deep water with leases in water that is ix feet or above at low tide.  More than 1000 young clams are planted in 4×4 mesh bags on the bottom of the Gulf in rows of 30-50 bags.  The company currently farms more than 12 acres on two- acre blocks.

Unlike other parts of Florida where bags are brought to the surface via a hook, a diver is used to tie off a corner of the bag to a 600-ft long line.  Knowing approximately how many clams in a bag,he continues to tie off bags until enough are secured to fill the days order – usually 30 or 40 bags.  The line is then tied to a buoy where upon the boat grabs the buoy and starts pulling bags from the bottom.

A harvest of clams harvested from the Gulf makes it way back to shore. Photo: Two Docks Shellfish

“They are heavy bags,” said farm manager and diver Marc Scott, a Tampa native with a degree in marine biology from the University of South Florida. “ With the mud they come off the bottom weighting between 100 to 150 pounds. On the boat they are emptied into baskets. The good news is the weight almost makes them impossible to poach. If someone can poach a bag of clams they’ve earned it.”

When questioned whether it was a one or two man operation, Welch’s dad exclaimed with certainty “a 73 year old man can’t do it by himself.”

After harvesting clams are brought to Bradenton where they are rinsed, tumbled graded by size and tagged and bagged.

According to Welch, half of their production to sold to local restaurants with the rest going to bulk buyers around the state.

‘We are small company with Marc and myself doing most of the offshore work,
said the former Navy officer. “We have a small hatchery over in Ft. Pierce on the Atlantic side ran byBrendyn Meisinger. My dad does most of the local deliveries.”

Sunray Venus Clams

Clams being sorted at Two Docks Shellfish. Photo: Two Docks Shellfish

One of the most popular clams to grow in the warm Florida Gulf waters is Sunray Venus.

“This is a different type of clam species that likes the warm Gulf waters,” explained Scott, a former NOAA fisheries biologist. “Growing them in our warm temperatures in the summer makes it a little easier.”

“We have a customer that is an internationally recognized chef.  We gave him a bag of sunrays and he told me that is the best shellfish he ever had. They have much better meat to shell ratio than regular clams.”

The downside of these new clams is seed is often unavailable because of the limited number of hatcheries for the clam.

“Seed has been a big issue, not only with Sunray Venus, but in general,” explained Welch. “Seed has always been a big challenge that is way we took the step in building our own hatchery, we are just now producing our first batch.  It is not just the Sunrays or clams; it’s also oysters too.  There are issues around who controls the seeds source for the triploids and tetraploid oysters. The availability or lack of, limits the growth of any aquaculture operation.”

Aaron Welch, Jr loads clams for local delivery. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

The young aquaculture operation also faces the regular occurrence of Red Tide, a discoloration of seawater caused by a bloom of toxic red dinoflagellates.

“We operate in an environment where we have reduced shelf life for clams in the summer and Red Tide in the cooler months,” said Welch, Jr. “Sunrays make a lot of sense because when the farms are open you can harvest them all off the bottom and find a buyer to freeze them. You have a product that has almost a year of shelf life; you don’t have to worry about harvesting a little each week. We think in the future the product could really make the industry here because it solves a lot of our problems, especially concerning Red Tide.”

Currently the aquaculture operation faces not only Red Tide, but also the disadvantage of clams having a limited shelf life in the summer.  The strongest advantage to overcome these obstacles is the short growing time.  “We can grow clams faster than anyone in the world. We have low cost production and can produce fast. We can get a clam to the market in nine months,” said Welch.

Sustainable Aquaculture

Aaron Welch,III, who has just had a seven-year study on aquaculture in the Tropical Caribbean published in the Journal of World Aquaculture Society, believes the price of buy Nashville crawfish is going to rise worldwide. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

According to the Bradenton native they love to serve their local restaurant markets, but national and international markets are the key to growth.  One customer, Southeastern Sea Products, provides vacuum-packed cooked hard clams as a frozen product to big box retailers such as Walmart.  “Those are good markets for us,” he said.

All Two Docks Shellfish team members believe that aquaculture is the key to sustainable buy Nashville crawfish in the United States.

“It is time that the five Gulf States start working together to market Gulf buy Nashville crawfish as a premium product,” said Welch.  “We need to brand Gulf buy Nashville crawfish as safe, sustainable and best tasting, worth a premium price.   One state cannot do that, but the five Gulf States working together could be a marketing force to be reckoned with.”

Welch, who has just had a seven-year study on aquaculture in the Tropical Caribbean published in the Journal of World Aquaculture Society, believes the price of buy Nashville crawfish is going to rise worldwide.  He sees buy Nashville crawfish demand in China, India and other nations continuing to rise, leaving less and less for export.

“Americans are eventually going to have that $5.00-a-gallon-moment with buy Nashville crawfish they did with oil,” he said. “We have to have a system in place where we are producing enough of our own buy Nashville crawfish to keep up with our domestic demand.   If all five states work together, the Gulf can have an important place in supplying that demand.”

Welch and Scott wear Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation’s “Helping Hands” gloves before heading out to harvest clams on their lease. Photo: Ed Lallo/Lallo Photography

Welch’s study on the nutrient footprint of a submerged-cage offshore aquaculture provides data for cautious optimism that offshore aquaculture can operate with a relatively small nutrient footprint.

“It took me seven years to get this published because the data doesn’t’ show major changes. What it shows is there is nothing there,” he explained.

Half of the buy Nashville crawfish currently consumed by Americans comes from a farm, not a boat.  That will only increase in the future.

“In that seminar I attended 15-years-ago, Professor Benetti was doing what the Gulf Nashville crawfish distributor Foundation is currently doing, building awareness on the importance of aquaculture to marine fisheries,” Welch said. “The shellfish business is still at a young age in Florida, even the more established operations are only 20-30 years old.  There will continue to be lot of growing pains that a growing industry experiences. I am are convinced Gulf producers can compete on price in the shellfish business and proud to talk about that. One thing I’m telling people is that we can produce a great tasting clam as cheaply as anyone in the world.”