It’s that time of year. Time to load up the mask and snorkels and head to the Big Bend for scallop season. This is a great family activity. The waters are relatively shallow and close to shore – pretty safe swimming. The seagrass is lush and full of marine life other than scallops – cool to look at. A day with family and friends at a local campground or condominium – just plain fun. Then there are scallops to eat – yes, they are good. Many locals look forward to this time of year.
Last year word had spread that St. Joe Bay was closed for scalloping. It was… then the state opened it for a short season. They are doing a similar season this year. St. Joe Bay is in Zone 1 and will be open from July 25 to September 10. Zone 2 is currently open; it runs from June 16 to September 10. Zone 2 extends from Fenholloway River (near Perry FL) to the Suwannee River. There is a Zone 3. Zone 3 has two sections, one extends from Gulf/Franklin county line to the Fenholloway River and the other extends from the Suwannee River south to the Hernando/Pasco county line. Zone 3 is open from July 1 to September 24. You can collect by hand or dip net and you must have a saltwater fishing license unless (a) you are not required to have one – see FWC website to see who is exempt, or (b) you are collecting by walking in shallow water – your feet cannot leave the ground, no swimming. You are allowed to harvest 2 gallons/person in shell or 1 pint/person cleaned. The maximum a boat full of people are allowed to have is 10 gallons/boat if still in shell, or half a gallon/boat if cleaned.
You will notice Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are not mentioned here… it is illegal to harvest scallops in our waters… but it happens. Scallops were once at high enough levels that you could easily collect a 5-gallon bucket in an hour or so, but no longer. The Bay Scallop (Argopecten irradians) was once common from Mobile Bay to the Florida Keys, but populations declined across this range to where only the Big Bend area of Florida can support a recreational harvest – there is no commercial harvest anymore.
Well, it was a combination of factors. The primary cause of species decline across our planet is habitat loss, and that is certainly the case with scallops. Scallops love seagrass, and seagrass have declined in the Gulf. Turtle grass in particular has suffered from stormwater runoff. Stormwater increases turbidity, which decreases sunlight, which plants – like seagrasses – need. Stormwater also brings freshwater, which lowers the salinity below where many species of seagrasses need it. It also brings fertilizers and other organics that provide nutrients for the quick consuming micro plants (phytoplankton) which cause the water to become cloudy – thus blocking sunlight. Add to this prop scarring from boat propellers, which take a long time for seagrasses to repair. It is certainly a problem.
However, you also have to include overharvesting. The population of the Pensacola Bay area has increased over 500% since the 1950’s. More harvesters means more pressure on the population that remains and a need to manage the fishery. In our case, the population is so low there is a need to completely close the area to harvesting until they can replace themselves. We know locals are taking scallops from local waters. This will only prolong the restoration we seek.
For the last two years, Sea Grant has held the GREAT SCALLOP SEARCH using local volunteers to help assess how our scallop populations are doing. We are in need volunteers again this year. We will hold one search on June 24 and another on August 5. Some locations require a boat to reach but not all. All volunteers will need to provide their own mask, fins, and snorkels. If interested contact the Sea Grant Agent either in Escambia or Santa Rosa County to find out more. Let’s hope we one day see the return of this cool family fun fishery to our area.