Scallop season slow

Scallopers swim offshore from the Citrus County coastline during the opening day of scallop season. While scallop populations are down along the coast, tourist populations remain healthy.

Steve Christy drove all the way from Tampa to Citrus County to bag as many scallops as he can in the warm waters off the Gulf.

He didn’t get many.

“I had more beers than scallops,” Christy said.

But he admits he still had fun getting into the water. That attitude seems to be shared by others, who may not be finding boatloads of scallops but still want to get in the water and have fun. If it’s taking them longer to bag the scallops, so be it.

And though the scallops may be scarce, business remains brisk.

“They just want to have the experience,” said Terry Natwick, sales and marketing manager at the Citrus County Visitors Bureau.

Natwick said she’s been getting several phone calls from out-of-county people — especially from Orlando and Tampa — who want to know how to book scallop charters.

Natwick said these people have heard about the scarcity but don’t care. Citrus County’s reputation as a scallop hotbed is well-known. 

And Natwick said it’s not like people are not finding scallops. They just have to go out a little farther, she said. That should change, she added, as the season progresses.

“They’re there, they’re just not close enough yet,” she said.

Citrus County has two huge ecotourism drivers: manatees and scallops. Every year, from July 1 until mid-September, folks come from throughout the country to search out the tasty mollusks. Tourists boost the bottom line of local boat guides, lodging venues, restaurants and other businesses.

Charter boat captains, who take folks out on the water to dive for scallops, said business has been brisk even though the yields are smaller than in recent years.

Kim Altman, co-owner of Explorida Adventure Center in Crystal River, said the scarcity of scallops has not affected her business's bottom line.

Her clients, especially those from out-of-town, know it might be harder to find scallops, but they don't care, she said.

“Everyone just wants to get salty and get out there with snorkels and see what’s out there,” she said. “They’re bringing them in. They’re just not limiting out.”

Altman said she called clients who had already booked Explorida charters alerting them to the decrease in scallops.

“What’s most important is for us to be honest with our guests,” she said. “As long as we reach out and communicate with them about the conditions, they are always just fine. We do the same thing with our manatee tours.”

Altman said she’s given clients the opportunity for a refund, but nobody’s canceling. 

“Everybody’s pretty much in it for the experience,” she said.

Mike Engiles, owner of Crystal River Watersports and president of the Manatee Eco Tourism Association, or META, said all’s well right now, but he worries about the long-term fallout from the scallop scarcity.

“We don’t know what the impact on business is going to be yet,” Engiles said. “The people going out now are having a good time.”

To compensate, Engiles said his tours are emphasizing family time and not numbers.

Last year also saw a slow start to the season and the numbers turned around, so he is hopeful for a repeat this year.

So far, it hasn’t affected his business.

“We haven’t had any cancellations due to a lack of scallops,” Engiles said.

Beth Schneider, front-office manager at the Hampton Inn of Crystal River, said she hasn’t heard many complaints from customers. 

“More are complaining about the weather,” she said.

Bookings and reservations are on par with past seasons, if a little low, she said. However, she is seeing an increase for reservations this August, perhaps because the word has gotten out that scallops may be plentiful later in the season.

Josh Wooten, president and CEO of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, said he’s talked with restaurateurs, hoteliers, charter boat captains and other business owners and the mood — for now — is upbeat.

“Most of the businesses I’m talking to are pretty darn happy with the summer they’re having so far,” he said.

More business owners, he said, seem to be concerned about the rainy weather of late than scallops.

This year’s scallop season started July 1 and ends Sept. 24.

Ronny Daniels from Seminole County heard about the scarce scallops but made the trip to Citrus County anyway.

He planned to have fun.

“If you can get two gallons, you’re doing good,” he said. “Real good.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205 or mbates@chronicleonline.com.

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