Across the street from Curt Hemmel’s Terra Ceia home, off a sun-bleached dock, are millions upon millions of clam seed—clam babies that look like brown beach sand—resting in open tanks. When you ask Hemmel how many clams he’s brought into this world, he has no idea: “After 23 years, you kind of lose count.”
Hemmel is the founder and managing director of Bay Shellfish Co., Florida’s largest bivalve hatchery, an aquaculture business that sells these itty-bitty clam babies, mostly hard-shell clams, to clam farmers all over Florida and Southern seaboard states so they can grow them into edible adults. He is also a co-founder and president of the Gulf Shellfish Institute, a nonprofit that promotes bivalve aquaculture.
Ed Chiles of the Chiles Restaurant Group, who is also a co-founder of the institute and serves Hemmel’s clams in his restaurants, calls Hemmel “the Pied Piper of clams,” especially when it comes to the tasty native Sunray Venus clam. “There’s a small fraternity of bivalve experts and he’s one of them,” Chiles says. “He cracked the code in propagating the spawn. What he’s doing is incredibly important work.”
It turns out that Sunray Venus clams are more abundant here than anywhere else in the world because of our warm water and perfect salinity. Because they’re local, Hemmel thinks this type of clam may be able to handle rising water temperatures caused by climate change. But Sunrays and other clams not only taste good, they do good. They feed on algae (including red tide), promote sea grass growth and sequester carbon.
And now that Hemmel has cracked the code, Sunrays are potentially a good revenue-producing crop for Florida. The state already ranks fourth in the nation in sales of mollusks with $20 million in sales in 2013, the last estimate available, and the industry has grown since then. Right now, the U.S. imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, according to the institute, which makes aquaculture a huge economic opportunity for Florida and a more ecofriendly way to consume seafood.
Restaurants are hankering for the Sunray Venus clam when they can get it, says Chiles. Sunrays have a firmer texture and are less “clammy” tasting than other varities. Hemmel describes the taste as “almost like a queen conch and clam with a little bit of lobster thrown in.”
Can Hemmel eat his own clams every day? “It’s a whole food and offers some good nutrients, but it doesn’t give you the same perk as coffee,” he says.