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Scallop comeback: Did restocking do it?

The shellfish rebounded in areas near aquaculture programs. Some scientists hope to resurrect the farming operation, as debate swirls on lifting a harvesting ban.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- In December 1996, two years after Florida put the kibosh on the perennial summer party known as scalloping, a meeting was held at the Plantation Inn that provided hope for fishermen reeling from a different prohibition.

The fishermen, who could no longer legally use gill nets, would be taught how to raise bay scallops and sell them to tony restaurants. Some 125 people listened with interest as Norm Blake pitched the aquaculture program.

"We were flabbergasted," recalled Blake, a University of South Florida marine science professor. Fifteen people were enrolled and began studying everything from scallop biology to marketing.

The enthusiasm soon faded. Few of the thousands of scallops ever made it to market; most were fouled with innocuous but ugly barnacles.

"There were some problems with it, definitely," said Jonathan Gill of Crystal River, one of the few to stick with the program before it caved last September. A storm carried the crop away, leaving only the massive aluminum barge from which cages of baby scallops were suspended.

The 8-ton platform, which took Withlacoochee Technical Institute students a year longer than expected to build, was heralded as the first of its kind in the country. Today it is little more than a roost for birds.

"It's a shame because it's a floating classroom," Blake said, responding to the fact that the Citrus County school district has left it virtually untouched. The district is developing education plans, an official said last week.

Viewed through this prism, the $231,000 scallop program may seem quixotic, a tremendous waste of time and money.

But it had another objective, one that may have contributed to the remarkable resurgence of the shellfish, whose numbers fell in the past decade, likely because of water pollution and unrestricted harvesting. The caged scallops spawned, sending larvae into the bay area that grew into full-size, barnacle-free creatures.

Their numbers once precariously low, bay scallops are now more abundant than they have been in at least a decade in the Crystal River and Homosassa area, leading Blake and other experts to urge the state to lift the recreational harvesting ban enacted in 1994.

On Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will hold a public hearing at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park to discuss that proposition. "It's possible," spokesman Lee Schlesinger recently told the Times.

While no one disputes scallops are back, the success raises questions about the farming program and whether its restoration side, which dovetailed with a similar but broader effort, played a role.

"Although we can't 100 percent prove that restoration efforts have led to the rebounding, we have a lot of circumstantial evidence," Blake said.

The greatest concentrations of scallops now found are near the platform, he said. And other areas along the coast that also saw numbers drop have not rebounded nearly as well as Crystal River and Homosassa, where restocking was aggressive.

Bill Arnold, a Florida Marine Research Institute scientist who oversaw the broader restocking from Tampa Bay to Crystal River, said: "I believe it's more than coincidence that that they have rebounded. Planting on the barge certainly provides another source of larvae to repopulate the grassbeds."

It is impossible to differentiate between the scallops planted on the barge and those Arnold placed in seagrass because they both came from the same source: Blake's hatchery in St. Petersburg. Over the past several years, more than 250,000 scallops have been raised there and replanted off the west coast of Citrus County.

For all Blake's optimism, preliminary studies have shown no direct link between the scallops found naturally in the bay and those that were planted, suggesting the harvesting ban -- not restocking -- is responsible for the revival.

If the latter is true, Blake will have a harder time obtaining money for his research. In fact, funding has already showed signs of drought.

Whatever the reason, researchers are confronted with a paradox. If the ban alone led to the rebound and the waterways are opened to the public again, could the scallops dwindle once more? If restocking played a role, but funding is not available, could the population collapse?

"There is a potential Catch-22 we are doing everything we can to avoid," Arnold said. "No matter where the scallops came from, we have to be careful about how we exploit the resource."

Scientists say the state should proceed with caution when considering lifting the ban, possibly by shortening the harvest season (before the ban it was July 1 to Sept. 10) or designating only certain areas and rotating them.

Reopening scallop areas could be a boon to Citrus. Before the ban, 1,500 people visited the area each week, generating between $3-million and $5-million in tourism revenue, according to Blake.

Given those figures, Blake said, "If anything, they ought to be expanding restoration. There are so many things that can lead to a scallop decline, and if you don't have a restoration effort ongoing, you increase the chances tremendously of the population collapsing."

He said he will be forced to close the hatchery in June because he can no longer afford to pay the chief technician. "I can't afford to pay any of my people."

Even if Blake does get additional funding, it would take several years to get the hatchery running again because of the in-depth training required.

During the last legislative session, Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, introduced a spending proposal that would have kept the hatchery and the farming effort alive. She sought $85,000 for continued research but Gov. Jeb Bush never approved it, weeding it and other pet projects -- "turkeys," as he put it -- out of the budget.

The setback was only the latest for a program that was launched despite long odds. Creating a scallop-farming industry in the United States has been nearly impossible because the Chinese have perfected the trade and can sell the scallops considerably cheaper.

Those scallops represent only the small muscle plug, so Blake and others believe there is a market for the entire shellfish. Convincing people to eat whole scallops could take time, though, because they contain vivid orange and white gonads.

Blake is confident the farming project can work and says the problems, while formidable, are not insurmountable. He does not know why barnacles formed but is working on different cage designs that could alter movement or water flow.

And he points to market studies that show people enjoy the whole scallops once they give them a chance. The scallops were given to local restaurants, free of charge, with the condition that they serve them whole.

"Some people said they didn't like them. That's okay. Some people say they don't like prime rib," said Chuck Adams, a University of Florida professor who conducted the market survey. "But 90 percent said they would buy them again."

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

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