Every Summer thousands flock to the nearshore grass flats of Florida’s Gulf coast in search of the Florida bay scallop (Argopecten irradians). Once imperiled due to diminished water quality, habitat degradation, and other environmental factors, the Florida bay scallop saw a severe decline in numbers after the peak of commercial harvest in the years between 1920 and 1940. By 1985 regulations were introduced to help curb overfishing. Finally, in 1994 the sale and commercial harvest of the bay scallop was banned completely. Now, after efforts by multiple agencies, there is ample opportunity for recreational harvest during a limited season.
A bivalve mollusk, the scallop lives a relatively mobile life compared to other mollusks, which bury themselves in the sand. With a strong (and delicious) abductor muscle, the scallop is able to propel itself along the seafloor by shooting water out upon contraction. A set of primitive eyes along the edge of its shell serve as a defense mechanism alerting it to subtle changes in light. The scallop has a life span of around one year, and spawns by broadcasting cells externally in dense population clusters to promote successful regeneration. This usually occurs as fall water temperatures drop throughout the usually warm waters.
Known in some circles as the “potato chip of the marine ecosystem” the Florida bay scallop is predated upon heavily by most of its underwater neighbors. This predation, combined with the aforementioned factors has led to efforts focused on reestablishing a harvestable population through a program called the Scallop Sitter Project. This volunteer program relies on local community members partnering with Florid Fish and Wildlife Research Institute biologists.
This project, beginning in 2016 and funded by restoration money from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill involves collecting juvenile scallops (spat) during the peak settlement period of August through March. Groups of 50 scallops are then placed in cages in an exclusion zone in the bay and monitored closely, along with water salinity.
Scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute use the Scallop Sitter program in conjunction with two other methods for what is described as a “three-pronged approach” to enhance bay scallop populations. The other two are; release of hatchery-reared bay scallop larvae, and release of hatchery-reared or naturally-harvested spat.
Evaluation of yearly harvest provides a metric by which success can be gauged, this includes boat counts, done by aerial and visual surveys of boats on the water, as well as walking through parking areas counting trailers. Perhaps most importantly, scallopers are asked to participate in a simple online survey gathering information directly from those participating.
Scalloping is an activity enjoyed by all ages, from an endless variety of watercraft. During the peak of the season you’ll know where to anchor based on the large flotilla that can generally be seen from miles away. It requires very little skill other than swimming and snorkeling, and the gear list is minimal. A diver down flag, and a small mesh bag are all that need accompany the basic mask, fin, and snorkel set.
Culinarily, the bay scallop is regarded as finer tasting than the sea scallop with a sweet, creamy texture. I’m inclined to agree. I look forward to sharing a delicious scallop recipe with you later in the week.