Scallopers crowd gulf waters as ban lifted
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
CRYSTAL RIVER -- Without a crowd to guide him, it seemed as good a place as any to stop. Charlie Slider eased back on the throttle and the bow of his fishing boat settled into the dark green water.
He looked into the depths and shrugged his shoulders.
"There's only one way to find out," Slider said, squeezing into a wet suit and snapping a mask to his face. He steadied himself on the edge, then fell over backwards and disappeared.
Moments later, the 46-year-old popped out of the water, his outstretched hand clutching a brown and white shell. "Here we go, guys," Slider beamed. "Here's dinner."
After a ban lasting more than seven years, scalloping returned to Citrus County on Monday, drawing several hundred boats to the shallow gulf waters from Chassahowitzka to Crystal River.
Slider was one of the first on the scene, tossing the first of many scallops into his red mesh bag before 8 a.m.
As wildlife officials in helicopters buzzed the crowd several miles off Crystal River, Florida Power's nuclear plant visible in the background, snorkelers combed sea grass beds for the tasty critters.
The sun was bright, the water a comfortable 80 degrees and mostly smooth and clear. A light breeze whipped red dive flags hanging from the boats.
The weather remained in this near perfect state for most of the day. Heavy rain began to fall in Crystal River shortly after 5 p.m.
Results of this great underwater treasure hunt were mixed. Some said the shellfish were scarce; others said they were plentiful but well concealed in the tall sea grass.
"They are a little few and far between," said Jennifer Livingston, 37, of Crystal River as she sunned herself on a boat, a few kids from the neighborhood drinking cans of soda under a small canopy.
"And they are a little small, too." She didn't seem to care that much.
No one did. "I'm just glad it's back," said Livingston's husband, Mark.
Back on his 21-foot boat, Slider ran a knife through the shell opening, splitting it to reveal an unsightly mishmash of guts and gonads.
He trimmed the innards with the knife, leaving only white muscle plug, which he promptly popped in his mouth. "Sweet," he said.
Carving another scallop, Slider washed it in the salty water and handed it to friend Marty Senetra. "Mmmmm," Senetra replied.
The group, which mined several areas over the course of several hours, would leave with about six gallons of scallops in the shell.
"There was a lot more out there than when they closed the bay," Slider said. "As long as they keep enough marine patrol out there to keep people from poaching, I think it will be good for years."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will keep a close watch on the situation. It lifted the ban this spring after research showed scallops had fought back from dangerously low numbers.
The latest census, completed last week, showed a heavy dip from last year, when Homosassa had more scallops than anywhere else in Florida, but officials say the population is still healthy.
Bob and Sandy Charlton of Lecanto can attest to that. As they pulled their boat out of Fort Island Trail Park on Monday afternoon, the couple were already planning dinner.
"I'm going to make scallop chowder," Sandy Charlton said. "I've been working on the recipe."
The scallop season runs through Sept. 10. The shellfish can once again be harvested from Aripeka in northern Pasco County to the Suwannee River north of Cedar Key. Some areas north of the Suwannee, such as Steinhatchee, were not affected by the ban.
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