When Betty Staugler discussed bay scallops at a Sept. 11 seminar during the Florida Outdoor Writers Association Conference in Crystal River, there was just 13 days remaining in the state’s bay scallop season. However, her topic’s relevance extends well past the recreational season.
In a word: Restoration.
See, the conference location sits just south of Steinhatchee—the state’s epicenter for well-established scallop populations. From the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal (Bay County) down to the Pasco/Hernando County line, scallop numbers on Florida’s upper west coast support the recreational season that runs June 28 through September 24.
As you continue farther south in the state, issues of water quality and habitat loss have precluded scallop growth. But Staugler, the Florida Sea Grant extension agent from Charlotte County, touts the virtues of striving to restore the historic range of these tasty filter feeders.
“Bay scallops are the canary in the coal mine,” Staugler says of the bivalve’s dependence on clean water. “If you have bay scallops, you have good water quality.”
Moreover, the economic benefit to all the dive shops, charter boats, hotels and restaurants throughout the communities catering to the annual throngs of scallop harvesters cannot be overstated. For this collective benefit, Florida Sea Grant, along with Tampa Bay Watch and other Southwest Florida environmental groups is currently engaged in several scallop restoration efforts.
Among them, mesh citrus bags fortified for rigidity and anchored in the soft bottoms of sea grass beds collect juvenile scallops for population estimates. Elsewhere, Staugler and friends free release young scallops raised at the state fish hatchery for straightforward population enhancement. Also, keeping adult scallops in anchored cages yields the benefit of spawning, while maintaining control over the mature shellfish for future moves.
Along with all this, Staugler and other scallop supporters conduct surveys on designated sites to collect the population, habitat and water quality data essential for future restoration efforts. Understanding why the shellfish do better in certain areas – taken into consideration a myriad of environmental impacts—provides invaluable big-picture insight.
And while Staugler’s personally invested in restoring bay scallops in Southwest Florida waters, she’s also adamant about prudent harvesting where the bivalves abound. That’s because the expansion of existing scallop populations plays a complementary role to proactive restoration efforts in adjacent regions.
The state allows the daily harvest of 2 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or 1 pint of bay scallop meat per person (10 gallons, ½ gallon per vessel). But on top of that, Staugler suggests targeting quality over quantity.
“We encourage people to keep the bigger scallops,” Staugler said. “If it’s a 2-inch scallop it has probably already spawned. Also, you’re getting more meat.”
Taking this charge a step deeper, Staugler warns against inadvertently wasted resources.
“What happens is people collect a lot of smaller scallops and when they get back to the dock, they realize they’re not getting much meat, so they end up dumping the remaining scallops at the dock,” she said. “They think their releasing the scallops to survive, but because most of the marinas in this region are well upriver, the water is too fresh and the scallops die.”
A better course, Staugler said, is to return to the saltwater before releasing any unwanted scallops. Here, the tasty shellfish have a better chance to survive—and expand.