The word on the water is that scallops are so abundant right now that shrimpers are catching more of these tasty mollusks in their nets than shrimp.
That bodes well for the start of scallop season July 1 and "Kokomo Joe" is ready.
Kokomo, also known as Joseph Bari, owns Keep on Shuckin’ and he cleans scallops for folks dockside at the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort in Homosassa.
“Shrimpers tell me it’s the most scallops they’ve seen in 10 years in their nets,” Bari said.
The scallops will show up, but will the tourists?
They can’t keep the mollusks so they throw them back in Crystal River, but it does take them time to detach them from their nets.
Bari, a commercial fisherman, said an abundant scallop season would be welcome after last year’s sparse pickings. He’s hoping the rain stays away and the weather accommodates for what he thinks will be a big opening crowd in the waterways and the cities of Homosassa and Crystal River.
Right now, the scallops are between 7 to 10 feet of water so they’re still pretty deep, Bari said. This is the time of year, he said, when the money is to be made.
“We average on weekends from 250 to 300 gallons per day during scallop season,” Bari said.
Last year, it was so slow he was able to do about 4 gallons daily.
Bari’s been cleaning scallops so long it’s second nature.
“You’ve got to be fast,” he said. “If I’m shucking, I can do 10 gallons in 40 minutes or less,” he said.
Captain Kyle Messier, owner of Reel Florida Fishing Charters, said he’s not basing the season on shrimpers’ tales. Last year was dreadful, he said, and he’s waiting for this week’s start to see if things have turned around.
“I’m still very optimistic that it will be a successful season,” Messier said.
If this year’s scallop yields are again diminished, Messier said he would support the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) putting an emergency ban on scalloping for at least one year to give the stock time to replenish.
But he hopes it won’t come to that.
“A lot of crowds are waiting to get out,” he said. “I hope they do and spend a lot of money so the city of Homosassa and Crystal River will reap the benefits.”
The FWC normally conducts a survey in June, prior to the start of the season, that assesses scallop populations.
But this year, those surveys were not conducted due to COVID-19 safety concerns.
Just have fun
Captain Laura Ruettiman with Sea Education Adventures, has been doing charters for 20 years.
While she is glad to take people out scalloping, she said her prime task is to educate her crew on the natural beauty of the salt marsh, seagrass beds, shore birds and sea life.
So whether scallops are abundant or not, her charter crews will have fun getting out in the water and taking in all the sights.
“We don’t focus on the gallon limits, but just having fun out there,” Ruettiman said. “Last year, when scallops were low, people were coming out and we had fun educating them. It’s not just about the scallops. (I) can't say there will be more scallops than last year, but I can say there are scallops in the waters.”
Ruettiman said she intentionally will not book any charters the first week of scallop season because it’s too hectic. The marinas, hotels and docks are all packed.
“Fourth of July weekend is extremely busy for Crystal River,” she said. “I choose to wait until the (congestion) dies down."
Ruettiman said she is booked solid from July 8 through the rest of the month.
County Commissioner Jeff Kinnard said he’s expecting big crowds for opening week. But he hopes visitors don’t forget about the COVID-19 pandemic. He said scallopers should observe social distancing rules, wear masks and stay safe.
“Certainly we want to see (visitors) for the economic benefit,” Kinnard said. “Our restaurants, bars and retail establishments — they all need help right now. They had no spring. The influx of revenue will be good to help some establishments and save some jobs. Everybody needs to be as careful as they can possibly be.”
Kinnard said scalloping is fun and that’s the appeal.
“I like the idea of getting out and picking up scallops,” he said. “I will certainly get out at some point and do it myself. But I’m not shaking hands and I’m staying away from crowds and wearing a mask.”