Folks who want to capture fresh bay scallops from Hernando County’s abundant waters might be scraping bottom for the 2021 season.
Slated now through Sept. 24, the county’s harvesting season usually brings in waves of snorkelers from all over searching for the tasty treat that thrives in gulf waters from Pensacola to Key West. “Expansive seagrass beds, an estimated 240,000 acres, flourish in the coastal waters along this county and provide habitat where scallops thrive. These plentiful seagrass beds, coupled with clear waters and shallow depths, make Hernando County an ideal place to snorkel for scallops during the open season,” according to a study by the University of Florida.
The study, which was funded by the Hernando County Tourism Development Department, concluded scallopers poured about $1.1 million into the county each year, including $654,000 in sales, $413,000 in labor income and the support of 18 to 20 jobs. It also stated that, of all the money people spend to go scalloping here, 63 percent of it goes toward gas, food, fishing gear, lodging, etc. purchased in Hernando.
Bay scallops are a bivalve mollusk similar to oysters, mussels and clams that prefer grassy bottoms 4 to 10 feet deep. They range in size from a grape to a bit smaller than a golf ball and, even though they are only about one-third the size of their cousin the sea scallop, their uniquely sweet meat is found on gourmet cuisines around the world.
Bay scallop season brings droves of harvesters to Florida’s Gulf Coast every summer. Kids can snorkel down a few feet to gather them up, giving families a great outdoor adventure on the water. When you dive into the water they nestle into the bottom like Easter eggs under 4-to-6 feet of water.
Unfortunately, hurricanes and other ecological conditions, heavy harvesting and fear of the Covid-19 Pandemic have affected the scallop business all along the Nature Coast and beyond in recent years. Charter boat captains say there’s been a significant reduction in the number of scallops available, and the combined effects of Hurricane Elsa and possible contamination from Red Tide this month certainly won’t help. Past hurricanes such as Hermione and Irma especially hurt the harvest.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) conducted its Bay Scallop Season and Abundance Survey covering 2019. It reported the number of scallops counted in each random, 200-square-meter section of the gulf plummeted to an average of only 4.3 scallops in 2019 compared to much higher numbers the previous seven years: in 2018, 20.1; 2017, 13; 2016, 20.2; 2015, 20.4; 2014, 9.4; 2013, 19.8; and 2012, 11.3. The all-time average is 15 scallops.
“Scallop population abundance is highly variable because scallops live only one year and are sensitive to changes in water quality, like salinity. Abrupt changes in scallop population abundance may occur after major environmental events such as El Nino, hurricanes or major storms,” the 2020 report noted. For instance, the salinity (salt content) of sea water increases when fresh-water rainfall increases.
Truth be told they don’t know how many there will be this summer.
John Wilson of Hernando Beach is an avid fisherman and scalloper with more than 20 years as a fishing guide and boat captain on Florida’s East and West Coasts.
Regarding Hurricane Elsa, he said its impact on the gulf’s ecology “didn’t really do anything.” However, he said scallopers should stay well north of Anclote Key off of Tarpon Springs to avoid any contamination from Red Tide because the shellfish “are filter feeders” that absorb whatever impurities are in the sea water: “I wouldn’t go anywhere near there.”
Wilson’s right, according to Brittany Scharf, a Florida Sea Grant agent with the University of Florida who said scalloping should only be done north of Anclote Key as of July 14, but this could change. She said volunteers are testing samples of gulf water off of local counties including Hernando to determine where the Red Tide has spread, and you can consult the map at myFWC/research/redtide/statewide/ to see where it is right now.
Scharf also cautioned against eating raw scallops, which some people do as a sushi dish. “Make sure you cook them fully to be safe,” she said.
Bayport fishing Capt. Josh Fritz says he’s not even doing scallop charters this year because ebbing demand and the hassle of waiting for low tide so snorkelers can hit the water isn’t worth it: “I had 40 fishing charters last season and only 20 for scallops…It just isn’t worth it,” the longtime pilot stated.
After more than 30 years as a local, die-hard fisherman and fishing correspondent, Nick Stubbs concurred with the FWC report. He says Hernando’s scallop grounds are recovering from a series of storms that buffeted gulf waters just off the coastline in recent years as rough weather upset the environment where scallops feed.
“You also had fewer boats out last year due to the Covid concerns,” he said. Stubbs said the fishing commission has also “theorized the storms messed with the spawning cycle of the scallops,” so it may take a couple of years for the numbers to bounce back.
Stubbs said scallop numbers are lower in Pasco County than Hernando, partly due to over-harvesting. That’s why their season lasts only 10 days, July 16-25. That’s one reason why a University of Florida study found that 25 percent of the people who go scalloping in Hernando County came from Pasco.
Conversely, Stubbs added Citrus County’s scallop population is higher than Hernando’s due to the marine environment in that area. Their seasons are identical.
North of Hernando, Citrus County charter Capt. Harold Butler said the last three years have not been good regarding scallop numbers. He said it might help to have harvesting season after spawning season in late September and October.
“We need to come up with an answer…From four through 10 years ago the numbers were good,” the 17-year veteran said. “It’s important to the economy. At times there have been 300 to 500 boats out there…We get families that come here from other states, and they might stay here for a week.”
Finding “the answer” was the objective at meetings of local and state officials two years ago that produced a detailed study for supporting the scallop population, like protecting the spawning season and lower bag limits to prevent overharvesting. Local officials were asked to suggest a plan of action, but those recommendations are still being studied by the state. The meetings included area business groups, the FWC and local fishermen working together to avoid the “S” word: Suspension.
“They can’t suspend the season because they’ll lose hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s not necessary,” Butler said.
It’s about fun, not food
Still, locals in the scalloping industry say folks will go out even if bag limits are reduced by the FWC. “It’s not about getting food, it’s about getting out on the water, the outdoor experience, especially for the kids,” one longtime Pine Island captain said. “As long as they can bag a few scallops, they’re coming back.”
“The most important thing is, take only what you need. They’ve got limits for a reason. Preserve the resource,” Wilson declared. “It’s the experience, not the amount of food you get.”
The important thing is to have fun. For instance, harvesters can become a junior marine biologist while they’re harvesting.
Help scientists learn more about how many scallops live along the Nature Coast by submitting your own data to a FWC web survey at myfwc.com/fishing. Just click on the link marked “Bay Scallop Web Survey Taps Recreational Harvesters.” Participants can tell where and how many scallops they took, how long it takes to harvest the shellfish or email questions, photos and videos to the state.
“More comprehensive information on the fishery could benefit recreational anglers, charter boat captains, and the tourism industry in communities where bay scallops are harvested,” the commission reported, adding “biologists hope to gain a greater understanding of the species’ biology and range limitations…what they learn about bay scallop abundance in individual areas of the fishery will enhance the accuracy of their next annual report.”
State officials remind recreational scallopers to consult current regulations before hitting the water because they change often. Guidelines are available at myfwc.com below the section marked “Harvest regulations.” For instance, this year Hernando’s daily bag limit allows two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or one pint of scallop meat per person; each vessel can take 10 gallons of whole scallops or a half-gallon of scallop meat per day.
For more information contact myfwc.com/fishing or call 850-488-4676.