TAMPA BAY — Comparing it to an Easter egg hunt, 4-year-old Andrew Stewart went on an inaugural bay scallop hunt with his parents and 8-year-old brother, Nicholas, last weekend about five miles off the coast of Homosassa.
The three-month recreational scallop season, which opened in late June, closes Sept. 25. Bay scallops are legal game in the Gulf of Mexico from the Hernando/Pasco county line north to the west bank of Bay County in Florida's Panhandle. Recreational harvesting of scallops in Tampa Bay is still banned.
On a family outing off the coast of Citrus County, Andrew's father, Rob Stewart of Pinellas Park, said they came across the mollusks, known for their electric blue eyes, in seagrass beds at a depth of four to five feet.
The scallops were plentiful, and the Stewart party was able to collect the regulatory limit of no more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops per vessel with four or more boaters. Along with Stewart's wife, Connie, and their sons, fishing pals Jose and Gustavo Borrego were also along for the day trip.
Young Andrew said he prefers fishing to scalloping because “scallops pinch.”
Each year, biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission conduct bay scallop population studies just before the recreational season opens.
According to FWC reports, scallops were once abundant in Tampa Bay. But in the 1960s, scallop fisheries, commercial and industrial dredging operations, and municipal waste run-off polluted the bay and depleted the scallop population.
Reports also indicate that environmental factors including red tide, high rainfall and storms inhibit the growth of scallops. Commercial harvest of bay scallops has been closed in state waters since 1994.
Since then, Tampa Bay's water quality and seagrass beds have improved to levels that once again will support the bay scallop population, according to the FWC. A 2013 study conducted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Surface Water Improvement and Management Program states that Tampa Bay now supports 34,642 acres of seagrass beds, the largest amount of seagrass measured there since the 1950s.
Scientists at the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute also are attempting to jump-start depleted scallop populations in Tampa Bay and other west coast estuaries by growing scallops in laboratories and releasing juveniles into various estuaries throughout the state because researches believe water quality has improved enough to again support bay scallops.
Scallop search set this weekend
Tampa Bay Watch, which organizes the Great Bay Scallop Search in partnership with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, has commitments from 45 volunteer boaters and 200 snorkelers to count the bivalves in select areas within Boca Ciega Bay and lower Tampa Bay this weekend.
The goal is to monitor and document the health and status of the local scallop population. In 2009, the search resulted in an all-time-high tally of 674.
For more information about the 20th annual scallop search, contact Tampa Bay Watch communications coordinator Rachel Arndt at (727) 867-8166 or visit www.tampabaywatch.org/.