Dressed in black athletic shorts, a white V-neck t-shirt, and backwards black baseball cap, Mike Sullivan looks more like a youth umpire than the owner of Commander’s Shellfish Camp in Crescent Beach, a clam farm and fresh seafood restaurant that’s become popular with locals. Mike isn’t an overly tall man, but he certainly commands a presence. Sporting white hair and a bushy white mustache, this father of four daughters spent much of his “professional” career writing accounting software. Armed with degrees in mathematics and computer science from the University of North Florida, Mike traded in wingtips for Wellingtons in 1992. “I started clam farming down in New Smyrna Beach,” Mike says of the early days. “I built it into such a successful operation that, eventually, I was planting eight million clams a year and selling 50,000 clams a week to Disney Resorts, Ritz Carltons, Hyatts, Marriotts, and all different high-end hotels.”
When pollution and other water quality issues destroyed Mike’s farm, he struggled with what to do next. But clam farming was what he loved and what he was good at. “This is a really good spot. It’s the only spot left on the East Coast where you can grow hard clams with any consistency,” Mike explains of the Matanzas River. “Over the 28 years that I’ve been in this industry, I’ve seen all of the shellfish areas go out of production because they can’t grow a clam for a year-and-a-half without some type of event that comes in and kills them.”
Referring to algae blooms and industrial runoff, Mike found his current location and fought hard to make it his own. Commander’s Shellfish Camp, named after his father, a successful Commander in the Navy, offers up clam chowder, raw clams, oysters, and Jambalaya.
It’s a labor of love and without the help of his devoted fiancé and one of his daughters, Mike says he would have stuck to clam farming and moved on from the restaurant he opened in March of 2017.
It’s interesting to note that planting one million clams costs approximately $30,000, so Mike has a lot invested in his clam farming operation. And aside from producing clams for his restaurant and nearby eateries, Mike sees the benefit to the environment these northern quahogs afford. “Our rivers are changing because of population growth,” Mike explains. “Some European countries are already doing this and the local GTM Research Reserve is making headway, but we need to place some serious focus on shellfish growth. Clams syphon the water around them and clean it better than you can imagine.”
Praying for good weather and a focus on environmentally-sustainable practices from fellow Matanzas River neighbors, Mike Sullivan is working hard to ensure that his clam crop, the success of his restaurant, and the health of our waterways are in sync for generations to come.