In these times of Targets and Walmarts, the distinction of community with its unique sense of place is being lost. What could be more placeless than a cookie cutter world of strip malls, fast-food chains, big box stores and franchises. It’s happening more and more. Captain Charlie Phillips, owner of Sapelo Sea Farms in Townsend, Georgia, has become something of an ambassador for the local culinary scene, working hard to preserve the clamming industry and building upon that. In doing so he is preserving the distinct culture of his home town.
Captain Phillips looks out over the Sapelo River from the dock. Seagulls cry overhead and crash into the water, aiming for food. The vibrant green spartina grass blows with the breeze and the brilliant blue sky is without a cloud. A couple of dolphins pass, chasing mullet down the river. “Hey, look out there at those old fishermen,” says Phillips. “That’s what we call ‘em around here – an old shrimper term given to dolphin out of respect,” he explains.
A clam skiff loaded with nearly 5000 pounds of freshly harvested clams travels slowly down the Sapelo River, passing close by. “This is the first of two harvests of the day,” says Charlie. The boat is heading to the dock of the Sapelo Sea Farms – the oldest clam farm in Georgia.
Once it arrives, Phillips oversees the crew pulling the heavy bags of clams onto the dock. “We’re standing on the very dock once owned by my father and over there is the restaurant he built, Pelican Point. We all grew up on these waters. It’s all I’ve ever known. Why I’ve captained shrimp boats for as long as I can remember. I’ll never forget the day my college professor refused to excuse me from a test on the first day of open shrimp season. That’s the day I quit, came home and I’ve been shrimping ever since.”
Phillips now owns the dock and the restaurant, which he renamed The Fish Dock to better represent the freshness of the food served.
“In 1980 I bought a new boat, a fiberglass boat so I could range further, and I wanted a bigger kitchen,” he says with a laugh. Phillips says he ran that boat all over the place, from Corpus Christy, Texas chasing shrimp and up to Chincoteague, Virginia searching for sea scallops and onto Key West in January, because it was the only place to find shrimp in the winter.
Phillips carries a deep respect for the seafood he pulls from the ocean and portrays that admiration through his passion for clam farming. “I enjoy getting the resource to the people. Commercial fishermen give the public access to resources, getting them something that is healthy, fished sustainable and doesn’t have chemicals or antibiotics added like the farmed fish from China,” he says.
“When the University of Georgia approached me in 1997 and asked if I wanted to grow clams, Sapelo Sea Farms was born. The first thing they told us was to go put the clams on a sandbar. It was the last place you want to try and grow a clam, the sand just packs the clams in and they suffocate,” explains Phillips. Through many years of trial and error, success and failure, Phillips has developed a reliable, solid method to growing clams.
Phillips starts with clam seeds, tiny 4mm baby clams from a disease-free facility. These seeds are loaded into mesh bags, belted together in lengths of six bags and rolled up. Phillips loads these rolls onto his airboat, an unusual sight itself on the Georgia coast. The bags are unrolled onto the mud flats in the direction of the tide in Sapelo Sound. The mesh bags protect the baby clams from natural predators, such as conchs, horseshoe crabs, stingrays, stone crabs and red drum. After six months of growth, the clams are transferred to bags with larger holes to continue growing. The clams are harvested after a total of two years growing on the mud flats. The resulting clams fall into three size categories: little necks, mid necks and pasta clams.
Once the clams have reached the desired size, the crew takes strange-looking boats built for harvesting clams out to the mud flats. “The boats are built off the design of old gill netting boats, with a motor mounted at the front and the back is flat and open. Although not the best maneuvering vessels, the boats are superior at hauling thousands of pounds of clams each trip. The bags are dragged up the ramp at the stern of the boats and brought back to the dock, where they are tumbled, cleaned and sorted by size,” he says. Phillips harvests as orders come in to ensure the freshest clams available.
The sustainability of clam farming is impressive, an element that is vitally important to Phillips; “I believe you can be an environmentalist and do things commercially, it is not an either/or in my humble opinion.” Phillips’ enthusiasm and passion for farming such a healthy resource is palpable. “We are buying seeds, growing them out on mud flats that previously had no production.”
“Just like oysters, clams clean the water, filtering algae out of the river,” he says. “Few people would even realize the mud flat is a working farm.”
“I think there are a lot of people who care what the story is behind their food,” says Phillips, “and I want to bring fish in on that boat and put it on that table.” He points to one of the fishing boats tied to the dock outside the window of the restaurant overlooking the peaceful, picturesque Sapelo River.
Phillips does not think of himself as a clam farmer, though. “I consider myself a fish monger and a horse trader, so if you want an appaloosa about 15 hand high, you just let me know and I’ll find it for you,” he says with an easy laugh.
In reality, Phillips is running a flourishing clam farm on the Georgia coast, providing three quarters of all of Georgia’s clams and beyond.
The work is tough and at times, the conditions are harsh. “It’s a lot of work, but to me, it’s a good way to make a living. When you are out there and you’re watching the sunset while you are working, it’s a hell of a nice office,” he says with a smile.