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    Limit on bay scallop harvest settles in for another year

    Scientists say a rebound in bay scallops is not yet enough to expand recreational fishing.

    By ALEX LEARY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


    HOMOSASSA -- As a once-vibrant fishing community strained to hear good news, cautious state officials on Wednesday said a seven-year scallop-harvesting ban could be lifted, but not just yet.

    Bay scallops, a delicacy that drew thousands to the Gulf Coast, have rebounded to levels not seen in years, but scientists say the population needs additional study -- at least another year.

    If the prohibition is relaxed prematurely, the scallops could be wiped out for good, they warned, because a restocking effort has run out of money.

    "We have one chance and we have to be very careful," Bill Arnold, a Florida Marine Research Institute scientist, told a crowd of about 30 people at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

    The cautious approach blunted optimism among the audience, which urged the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to reopen the season this summer.

    "It's taken a lot of money and a lot of profit from the community," said Pam MacRae, who owns a bait shop and motel on the Homosassa River.

    "We're not asking that we be able to go out and harvest helter-skelter," said Mary Craven, director of the county's tourism program.

    Scalloping generated between $3-million and $5-million annually in tourism revenue for the county.

    Although unhappy with the delay, several people suggested measures to ensure fishing will not be unchecked, including shortening the season and limiting the take to 5 pounds per boat.

    In the limited areas where the ban does not apply, scallops can be taken from July 1 to Sept. 10, and each boat can collect 10 pounds.

    The scallop resurgence had led the conservation commission to consider easing the ban from Anclote, near Tarpon Springs, to Crystal River. The shellfish have been planted in Tampa Bay but that effort has been largely unsuccessful.

    Biologists are not sure why the scallop population shrank, but water pollution and unrestricted harvesting are suspected.

    Since July 1994, recreational harvesting of bay scallops has been restricted to north and west of the Suwannee River where it emerges on the coast between Dixie and Levy counties. That year, authorities also imposed a statewide ban on all commercial harvesting, which is unlikely to be lifted.

    Four years later, scientists began an ambitious effort to restock scallop populations. Using a federal grant, they raised scallops in a hatchery at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and then planted them in seagrass beds.

    Preliminary genetic testing has yet to show a correlation between the cultivated scallops and those found naturally in the bay, but researchers are convinced a link will be discovered. The ban also is likely responsible for the resurgence, they say.

    "We may not be able to explain why they have rebounded, but there is no denying the scallop populations are way up from the late 1980s and early '90s in the area between Anclote and Crystal River," said Arnold, who oversaw the $1.3-million restocking program.

    From a low point of 3.2 scallops per 600 square meters in the Homosassa Bay area in 1996, today there are 243 scallops per 600 square meters, studies show.

    Restoration efforts in Tampa Bay have been less promising. About 15,000 scallops were planted there during the past three years, but the habitat is unsuitable: Seagrass is less plentiful and the water is cloudy. Turbidity clogs the scallop's gills, which are used for breathing and eating.

    "My assessment for Tampa Bay is that we have a long way to go," Arnold said.

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