The state's scallop experts say they are keeping an eye on reduced populations of the popular mollusk, but optimistic that a slow start to the harvesting season will be followed by a rebound in numbers as it continues, and in subsequent years.
Before locals and tourists rushed to the Gulf’s shallow seagrass beds on July 1 — the first day of scallop season — researchers and biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) knew their catch would be lacking.
But a slow season for bay scallops doesn’t mean the fishery won’t rebound.
The number of scallops in a given year is affected by multiple factors, from spawning rates and predation to the weather.
“It’s a natural product,” said Ryan Gandy, a research scientist with FWC’s Fish & Wildlife Research Institute, or FWRI.
Based on this year’s low preseason scallop counts, Gandy said he and his colleagues at the FWRI are not planning to recommend that FWC commissioners close the season or change harvesting dates or bag limits.
“We’ve seen low numbers like this previously,” he said. "There’s not a hard recommendation at this point."
2019 Scallop Populations Table
|Year||Citrus County||Gulf County||Franklin County||Wakulla County||Taylor County||Dixie County||Hernando County||Pasco County|
|Average All Time||15||4.8||11||9.4||21||17.9||10.3||11|
Gandy said the FWRI wants to see how well the population survives this season, how larva settle in the fall and winter and how many make it to adulthood before the season repeats in 2020.
“There’s more to be looked at; we just have to watch the trends,” Gandy said. “It gives you that beginning idea of how to frame what your expectation will be for the next season.”
Last year’s scallop population was a boom across Florida’s Gulf coast.
Before the 2018 season began, the FWRI reported in its annual preseason counts an average of 21.1 scallops per 200 square meters in Gulf waters off of Citrus County where scallopers dive.
That number dropped to an average of 4.3 scallops when FWRI did its scallop surveys in June.
Gandy said the FWRI is looking into whether environmental conditions played a part in the population decline.
Eastern winds over the past several months may have pushed scallop larva into deeper Gulf waters, away from traditional scalloping grounds, Gandy said, noting that shrimpers have been seeing scallops in waters 20 feet deep.
While the local scallop decline looks concerning, Gandy said it’s just one of many indicators FWRI uses to gauge the potentials of future seasons. The institute will continue to monitor the harvest, he said.
FWC publishes its preseason scallop numbers to give scallopers an idea of what to expect in a given season by helping them understand past trends.
“They can look at this relative to those experiences in those years,” Gandy said.
FWC scientists over the years have been grouping a county’s scallop population into categories — collapsed, vulnerable and stable — based on that region's preseason counts.
Gandy said the FWRI is working on doing away with that grading scale because it misleadingly represented scallop population trends.
Decades of data is now showing the FWRI that regional scallop booms and busts are cyclical and not easily predictable.
In 2013, there was an average of 19.8 scallops in the FWRI’s surveyed stations off of Citrus County’s coast. That dropped to 9.4 in 2014 before climbing to 20.4 in 2015.
“It’s led to a lot of confusion ... indications that if it was below a certain level that there was a potential of having low recruitment in following years,” he said. “Long-term data shows there’s long-term cycles. ... We are trying to capture that randomness.”
With that in mind, the FWRI is hesitant to say regulations are appropriate at the moment, because there’s a chance of a turnaround.
“The trigger wouldn’t be one down season,” Gandy said. “We don’t want to go into an area that just had a fantastic scallop set.”
Gandy said it would take years of consistent non-growth for FWC to close an area’s season to allow more scallops to spawn, or start restoration efforts, like caging adults scallops to protect them from predators, or releasing human-raised scallop larva.
“We’d prefer to manage areas so that they are sustainable,” Gandy said. “Mother Nature’s much better at it, and we’re more than happy for her to take over.”
Scallopers have a role to play in that management, too, by making sure they're not taking more than they're allowed, and following state law when harvesting.
Gandy said families and friends can experience a lot on the water that doesn’t have to center on diving for scallops.
“I’d rather the opportunity to go back out and get a few more scallops with my family later in the season when they’re fresh,” he said, “and have a great time doing that while combining it with fishing or snorkeling in the area.”