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Harvesters in a frenzy -- scallops are back

The county's tourism director and retailers are excited: The season's return after seven years should bolster a recovering economy.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- These are normally slow times at Skidmore's Sports Supply.

Snowbirds have fled the heat, leaving behind rows of fishing poles and buckets of shiny lures. Hunting season is over and kids are ditching their baseball mitts for the pool.

But from behind his glass counter on State Road 44, Larry Skidmore Jr. is bracing for the rush.

"People are fired up and ready to go," he said on a Friday afternoon. "This week coming up is going to be real hectic."

The sign outside says it all: Scallops are back.

It has been seven years since the state banned scalloping in area waters, but on July 1, the summertime tradition will be reborn.

So Skidmore is busy stocking his shelves with the simple trappings of the trade: masks, snorkels, fins and mesh nets. An outfit costs less than $40.

His competitors are doing the same. There will be enough customers for all, they say. Before the ban, thousands of people would flock to Citrus in search of the sweet tasting mollusks that live in the shallow bay waters.

Tourists filled area hotels, dined at restaurants and picked up snacks and drinks at convenience stores and supermarkets. On the water, boats were so thick you could nearly walk from one to the other.

It has not been the same since 1995.

With the economy still recovering, the resumption of scalloping could not have come at a better time, said Mary Craven, the county's tourism director.

"We expect a big boost," she said, noting that marketing efforts in Tampa Bay and Orlando have drummed up considerable interest.

"I have already started making reservations for July and August," said Marge McManus, manager of the Port Hotel in Crystal River. "People are so excited."

The Chassahowitzka Hotel is advertising a "scalloping adventure" in which $200 buys a person a room, guided snorkeling trip and meals. "We'll even prepare your scallop catch for dinner," the ad promises.

"We've gotten quite a few phone calls," owner David Strickland reported.

Up the road, Gator MacRae's motel on the Homosassa River is booked every weekend through July, and his bait shop is primed for business.

"The first 10 days will tell the story if the scallops are there and abundant, as the officials say," MacRae said. "If they are, it will be a big turnout. Everybody and their brother likes to go scalloping."

The comeback kid

Biologists are not exactly sure why the scallop population dwindled, but overfishing, water quality and loss of habitat may have played a role.

Citrus waters began to show signs of stress in the late 1980s. Between 1993 and 1998, no more than 15 scallops per 600 square meters were counted in Citrus County, with most years hovering around five scallops per 600 square meters.

Since then, the numbers have rebounded significantly.

Now there are 299 scallops over the same area, according to an annual census conducted by the Florida Marine Research Institute. In 2001, Homosassa had more scallops than any other area in the state.

What triggered the remarkable resurgence is an open debate. It could be that the ban allowed the population to rebuild. It could be the thousands of hatchery-born scallops researchers dumped into the bay. Or it could be neither of those factors and simply a natural occurrence.

Even before the ban, there were limits to how many scallops a person or boat could collect.

Mindful that the population could dip again, marine officials will be closely monitoring the takes this season.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers will also be making sure boating rules are followed.

They include using dive flags when snorkelers are in the water. Other boaters are asked to stay 300 feet from dive flags in open water; 100 feet in rivers, inlets and navigation channels.

Family excursion

Of course, scalloping is not just for tourists. Jeff Grybek, owner of Homosassa River Retreat, was among the many local residents bummed out by the ban in 1995, and not just for financial reasons.

He relished the experience with his children and friends, except, he said, "the shucking part, which is not fun."

Grybek may have grumbled, but he agreed the ban was necessary. "I could go out there all day and maybe get a limit of scallops. In 1990, you would get your limit in an hour."

With scalloping off limits in Citrus, Grybek would drive two hours to Steinhatchee, where the shellfish were plentiful.

"It was fun," he said. "But it's lot more fun when I can roll out of bed and into my boat."

Scallop season

Beginning July 1, scallops are fair game from Aripeka near the Hernando-Pasco county line, north to the Mexico Beach Canal, near Gulf County in the Panhandle. The season runs through Sept. 10. Recreational harvesters are limited to 2 gallons of scallops in the shell, or one pint of meat, per day. No more than 10 gallons of whole scallops, or a half-gallon of meat, may be aboard a boat at any time. Scallopers ages 16 to 64 need a saltwater fishing license. They cost $13.50 and can be obtained at a variety of stores and bait shops.

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