While locals and visitors nab scallops in seagrass beds along Florida’s Gulf Coast, state wildlife scientists make sure there’s enough of the treasured mollusk to go around.

Each summer since 1994, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation’s Fish & Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) have been counting scallops off the coasts of eight counties along the state's Gulf Coast.

Erica Levine, a biological scientist with FWRI, said studies like these are important because it gives a good representation of a region’s scallop population, which could make or dent a county’s economy.

“It’s an important species for economic reasons,” Levine said. “It’s a good species to get people involved in with the ocean, it’s a good outreach species.”

FWC Scallop Survey 4

Florida Fish and Wildlife biologist boat skipper Erica Levine waits patiently in line at the Fort Island boat ramp for boaters to remove their boats before she can load up her Boston Whaler.

FWRI’s scallop numbers, also known as scallop abundance surveys, are also forwarded to wildlife management experts so they can better shape the confines of next year’s season dates.

“It’s up to them to make those calls,” Levine said.

There’s good news for scallopers this year…and maybe next.

Compared to the last five annual surveys FWRI conducted, 2018’s data shows more scallops took up residence off Citrus County’s coast before the season opened July 1.

2018 FWC Scallop Survey Graph

Scallop abundance off Citrus County's shores has been its highest in years and has been deemed a stable population by state biologists.

2018 Scallop Abundance Table

Year Citrus County Gulf County Franklin County Wakulla County Taylor County Dixie County Hernando County Pasco County
2012 11.3 3.6 4.2 34.9 7.9 11.3 13.9 8.9
2013 19.8 7.7 8.3 1.4 15.4 8 14.6 14.6
2014 9.4 7.2 N/A 0.3 9.4 2.2 13.4 9.3
2015 20.4 3.9 55.8 14 21.2 13.1 10.1 13.9
2016 20.2 0.8 0.1 13.6 60.7 66.3 15.5 11.2
2017 13 2.5 7.4 6.4 22.2 18.6 9.5 13.2
2018 21.1 N/A 0.1 3.8 19.5 20.3 3.5 N/A
Average All Time 16.5 4.3 12.7 11.8 22.3 20 11.5 11.8

Levine and fellow biologist Austin Heil went out in early June to record scallops at 13 sites within scallop grounds three miles off county shores. FWRI randomly picks where surveys are done but bases locations on where scallop seagrass beds are and where harvesters go.

To do their survey, FWRI biologists drop a weighted, 984-foot-long guideline in the water, dive in and — working from guideline’s edges to its center — and count scallops within a few feet from the line. This creates an area of about 1,968 square feet.

After averaging out the counts of those survey sites, Levine and Heil found that Citrus County’s scallop population status upgraded from vulnerable to stable since the last survey, data shows.

This is a good sign for FWC, which has been tasked with restoring scallop grounds to a point where man-farmed scallops are no longer needed to keep populations balanced.

If we can get to the point where we can sustain the population rather than restore, it that would be ideal,” Levine said. “The primary thing is to keep the population around for the local people and for tourism.”

Levine couldn’t say why scallops have become more prevalent in area waters -- whether it’s an ease of predation, harvesting from humans and/or weather conditions.

In order to better explain trends in scallop numbers, FWRI has been looking beyond just counting them, and biologists are getting more personal with the mollusk to better understand its yearlong life cycle.

We’re expanding out studies,” Levine said.

On Thursday, Levine, Heil and their intern Samara Nehemiah visited the county’s scallop grounds — lush underwater fields of seagrasses — to collect scallops for FWRI’s year-old program on scallop reproduction.

FWC Scallop Survey 1

Florida Fish and Wildlife biology scientists, from left, Austin Heil, Erica Levine and intern Samara Nehemiah move to another spot in their Boston Whaler on Thursday to find enough scallops to take back to the labs where they will be analyzed and recorded.

Scallops spawn in the mid-to-late stages of their lives, which is around autumn, Levine said. In order to prepare themselves, scallops transfer more of their energy into reproducing than into producing muscle, or the meat scallopers are after for a nice meal.

Levine’s team collected at least 15 scallops, which will be measured, weighed and dissected to find out when scallops make that change from meaty to steamy.

FWC Scallop Survey 2 Horiz.

Florida Fish and Wildlife intern Samara Nehemiah dives for a scallop Thursday during an excursion to collect samples for biologic testing. This was Nehemiah’s first time scalloping.

This will help FWC determine when the majority of scallops spawn, versus those few that either reproduce earlier or later in the year, explaining why some scallops are smaller or larger.

“We want to do this to better track when they start to become more reproductively active,” Levine said. “Some go a little bit early, some go a little but later, so we’re trying to figure out how many outliers there are.” 

FWRI will release its findings next spring.

To learn more about FWRI’s research on scallops and its abundance surveys, visit myfwc.com/research/saltwater/mollusc/bay-scallops.

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

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