By Pat Foster-Turley
It was Bucko’s birthday yet again, and yet again he didn’t want to celebrate it in any way. Birthdays, holidays – bah, humbug from old Bucko. But for nearly 50 years I’ve learned to deal with this. I pick someplace close, easy to drive to, and a change of scenery for both of us. It usually works well, and preps him to decide on a “real” birthday celebration for my own just another month away. Poor Bucko.
So, this time, as we often do, we celebrated his birthday by driving up to Darien, Georgia for a seafood dinner, a night away, and the ambiance of a quiet town. Fine for Bucko, but what about me? I need a weekly column and heck I’ve been to Darien dozens of times and written about it. What could I possibly find there to write about yet again?
I found clams! As we often do, we drove a loop from Darien to Crescent, Georgia and back again to admire the Old South scenery and stop at the Fish Dock at Pelican Point, our favorite seafood restaurant in the area. This place is situated in an estuarine zone near Sapelo Island, and, it turns out, is also the processing center for the Sapelo Sea Farms shellfish operations.
When we arrived for a late lunch their clam operation was in full bore. I abandoned the birthday boy to let him secure seats in the restaurant and I poked around further into the clamming operation. Soon I was talking to clammers and photographing their activities as they unloaded large sacks of clams from their boat and brought them to a washing area for initial processing. A handful of men shoveled clams into a wire mesh rotating cylinder where any stray bits of shell and non-clam items were shaken off, then the clams were washed in running water. The fellows manning this operation were happy to pose for me as they were doing their work, and we all laughed together.
Inside the back of the restaurant, the second stage of the clam processing continued, and I invited myself there, introduced myself to Jennifer Allen, the manager, and soon I learned about all things clam. The newly washed clams still needed to be sorted by size and packaged for shipment and this, here, was a woman’s job. Clams were poured into a giant cylindrical machine that rolled them around and sorted them into different sizes, which were captured in mesh bags. Then these mesh bags were stacked up, ready to go to market. Outside the facility, a refrigerated truck from Inland Seafood was idling, ready to carry these fresh clams to places around the East Coast. Anywhere from 75,000 to 150,000 clams are processed in this facility each day of its operation.
Sapelo Sea Farms is the largest shellfish producer in Georgia and the oldest one, which has been farming clams since 1997. The waters around nearby Sapelo Island are clean, with shifting tides up to seven feet high that bring in nutrients and a substrate of the rich mud that clams need to grow in. The water here is regularly tested for bacteria and nutrients to ensure the health of the clams and oysters and the safety of those that consume them. Sapelo Sea Farms holds the rights to five of the dozen or so shellfish leases offered by the State of Georgia, produces clams in two of them and harvests oysters in them all.
The clam “seed” is obtained from a state-run nursery, and, at about the size of a pea, they are placed in mesh bags and laid out on the mudflats at low tide. In three months or so the bags are retrieved and the tiny clams have grown to about the size of a quarter. Jennifer happily showed me a large container filled with these young clams. The next task is to put these clams into more mesh bags that are then put back in the water, giving them room to grow for another 18 months or so before they reach harvestable size and are brought to the boats once again.
I was so captivated by this operation that I forgot about the birthday boy alone in the restaurant. But he was used to it, and after our decades together he knew just what to do. When I finally arrived to join him, there in front of my place was a large bowl of fresh steamed clams! It was perfect for me, and as our day progressed from there another birthday for Bucko was happily celebrated by us both.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]