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Local bay scallops bounce back

Biologists endorse lifting the ban that halted recreational harvesting of the delicacy after finding numbers had soared across the Nature Coast.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


HOMOSASSA -- The bay scallop, a delicacy whose numbers dipped so low that the state banned recreational harvesting in 1994, has made a significant comeback, prompting biologists to recommend the restriction be lifted.

"They've increased in abundance," said Bill Arnold, a research scientist for the Florida Marine Research Institute who has studied the shellfish since the late 1980s.

He said the population here was the most dense in Florida last year. More broadly, the ban and an experimental restocking effort begun several years ago have boosted populations across the Nature Coast, from Anclote to Crystal River.

Arnold supports easing the restrictions in at least some areas. "I would suggest we do it slowly so we can determine if it'll have a detrimental impact before we go too crazy," he said.

The agency that would make the call, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, is open to the idea and will host a public hearing at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park on April. 4.

"It's possible," said commission spokesman Lee Schlesinger. "We've had a lot of requests to look at those areas."

In an odd change in fortune, some areas north of the Suwannee River, where recreational scalloping is still allowed, have shown signs of stress, particularly St. Joseph Bay off Gulf County.

Schlesinger said the commission will consider reducing the season there or even enforcing a ban.

Before the local restrictions were enacted, scalloping provided a major stimulus to the Citrus County economy.

Hundreds of visitors traveled to the area each week, from July to September, and donned masks and snorkels to fill their nets with the succulent scallops.

"We had piles of people who used to come here," said Kitty Barnes, executive director of the Homosassa Springs Chamber of Commerce. "The first week of July you couldn't hardly get a place."

County Commissioner Gary Bartell, who in 1994 predicted the ban would be a "real setback" for tourism, said he would support any effort to ease the restriction.

"We need to open it back up. But we need to make sure that it's monitored so we don't deplete the crop like last time," he said.

No one is exactly sure why the numbers fell in the past, though habitat loss in certain areas is likely a chief cause. Unlike clams, scallops do not fare well in cloudy water because their gills, which are used for breathing and eating, are easily clogged.

In 1993, there were 7.3 scallops per 600 square meters in the Homosassa Bay area, according to Arnold. The number dropped to 3.2 in 1996 but began to increase markedly afterward.

Last year there were about 243 scallops per 600 square meters.

The rebound has been attributed to various factors, including the ban and an aggressive restocking program started in 1997.

Steel-mesh cages filled with hatchery-raised scallops were placed on seagrass beds in Anclote, Homosassa and Crystal River. The mollusks spawned, sending larvae drifting into the grass.

Shrimpers say they can tell the difference from recent years. They ply the same waters as the scallops and are having to toss more back. Some of them have complained that the hard-shelled creatures have ruined their nets.

"Five or six years ago you were lucky to catch a 5 gallon bucket of them," said Homosassa shrimper Rocky Foster. "Now there seems to be more and more. What's the point of them being there if you can't eat them?"

If the ban is lifted, Foster will have to catch scallops like everybody else. There is no talk of lifting the commercial harvesting ban.

-- Information from Times files was used in this report.

Recent coverage

Scallop project fights odds (August 23, 1998)

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