The City Magazine Since 1975

The Clam Man

December 2014
The Clam Man
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PHOTOGRAPHER: 
Life on the water with “Clammer Dave” Belanger, who’s been cultivating and harvesting his specialized, nationally sought-after bivalves—Caper’s Clams, Caper’s Blades oysters, and new Cape Romaine Clusters—from local waterways

Dave Belanger cuts a salty figure as he creaks open the old doors to his shellfish operation in McClellanville. It’s housed in a former meat processing plant where antiquated iron rails, on which deer carcasses once rolled, still snake along the ceilings of the refrigerated rooms. These days the coolers are filled with bright orange buckets brimming with clams and oysters.

Tucker McCleskey, the operation’s main employee, is in early. He stands in the corner sorting the clams Dave is famous for, one by one, into small piles that clink and rattle like so many coins splayed across the white table. Developed to resemble the vongole clam of Italian fame, they are grown in the water, packed in cages at high density, where their size is stunted while they fully mature, producing hard, heavy shells and plump innards that belie their diminutive size.

A former cattle ranch manager and agricultural and seafood consultant who grew up in the D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia, Dave happened upon the shellfish business in the late 1990s while assisting with the bankruptcy process of a local clam farm. At age 45, he traded his last paycheck for a parcel of seed clams that he cultivated from his sea kayak as an experiment. He then took off for three years to help close down another farming operation in Florida, before returning to see what the sea had wrought. Today, from his 25-acre lease of mud bottom just behind Dewees Island, Clammer Dave’s Sustainable Gourmet ships thousands of pounds of clams north each year to New York, where they receive much fanfare in notable Italian restaurants such as Mario Batali’s Del Posto, and supplies a bevy of local restaurants with what many consider the finest bivalves on the East Coast.

“His attention to the process—both in the water and out—is the best of anyone I’ve ever worked with,” says Mike Lata, chef-owner of The Ordinary. “It’s his willingness to do things the right way, to work with us to improve quality and create a great product. We were one of Dave’s first customers and that relationship means something; we inform each other’s practices.”

In 2008, Dave began diversifying into oysters, naming the small, elongated singles that are a staple of local oyster houses “Caper’s Blades.” The oysters are harvested by trusted watermen and delivered to his headquarters, where they are “shaped,” separated by hand into perfect singles using a specialized iron tool, the design of which Dave claims descended from the practices of Lowcountry slaves. The bivalves then return to the water, where they plump up, lengthen, and become more richly flavored before being sold.

This practice of returning them to the water also puts his product at risk. In the past 18 months, the company has fallen victim to a series of thefts. He’s been hit six times now, most recently in late October, and estimates the losses at $70,000. “That’s my operating capital,” Dave explains. “I haven’t been able to pursue my plans for expansion.” Still Clammer Dave trudges on through sheer stubbornness and with an innate entrepreneurial creativity.

He sees new opportunities on the horizon. Incoming regulatory changes that require harvested oysters to be above three-inches in size will soon impact the availability of “clusters,” often preferred for traditional oyster roasts. Dave already abides by the rule, requiring his harvesters to throw back the small ones because he believes it to be a more sustainable practice and plans to take advantage, developing a new product he’s dubbed “Cape Romaine Clusters.”

Describing them as “white tablecloth” clusters, he has designed new processes to produce small groups of oysters, easy to open; free of mud or grit; and brimming with the sharp, salty attitude of the briny knots of shell that locals favor over large select singles trucked in from the Gulf of Mexico. “I want to recreate the Lowcountry experience of a traditional oyster roast, without all the mud and mess, one that could be adapted in the nicer restaurants about town,” he explains. “Every time you stick your knife in, you get an oyster.”

Dave believes that this new product, and the coming regulations, may help support a more sustainable future for the native oyster beds surrounding Charleston. “Clear-cutters,” as he calls less scrupulous oyster harvesters, work cluster beds in a fashion akin to strip mining, often removing a tremendous amount of undersized and unmarketable stock. Dave claims that when these methods are used, 50 percent of the oysters are wasted. He believes that his process cuts that wasted by-catch to 20 percent. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, those guys treated it like a garden, taking only the big ones and leaving the smaller ones behind to grow,” he says.

If successful, Clammer Dave has broad visions for reinvesting his capital. His plans to expand his McClellanville plant to include flash-freezing capabilities—with which he wants to produce value-added products, such as smoked fish and shellfish dips for retail sale—as well as a food hub to sell locally grown and raised vegetables and meats, have been on the back burner now for too long. Such a venture could freeze local shrimp, process finfish currently being iced for export north, and centralize the produce of area growers for the local market. It could also create jobs in a business sector that sorely needs them.

Still, he faces an uphill battle. Beyond the thefts, his oyster lease is impacted by the environmental degradation of coastal development. Mosquito spraying and sewage spilling from the neighboring residential areas have impacted his shellfish beds, at some points closing them altogether due to possible contamination.

But Clammer Dave soldiers on. In the face of adversity, he wades against the tide. “My advantage is quality,” he says. The more one gets to know Dave, the more it’s evident that quality comes from hard-fought battles. He adds, “I’ll either figure out how to keep my stuff from getting stolen or I’ll adapt and do something else—but I’ll do it right. We’ve got to do it the right way, you know?”

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