Pasco hopes little fish churns big bucks

Published March 1

NEW PORT RICHEY – Wendy Longman is getting ready for scallop season. She just ordered 30 new sets of snorkels and masks, doubling the inventory at Windsong Charters where she is the CEO.

In two years, she hopes to have as many as 200 sets and 20 pontoon boats, six more than her current fleet that sails from a marina at the entrance to the Gulf Harbors channel.

"People from Pinellas and Hillsborough are used to coming through Pasco, and now they’re actually coming to Pasco,’’ said Longman.

Her enthusiasm comes from a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission decision allowing a 10-day scalloping season off the coast of Pasco County beginning July 20. The state said it anticipates setting another Pasco season for 2019 before adopting a full management plan.

Locals hope it will translate into a nearly summer-long scalloping season like those in neighboring Hernando and Citrus counties. Scalloping has been prohibited off Pasco’s coast since 1994 when Florida enacted a statewide ban because of over-harvesting that later was eliminated for other locations.

Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Wells Jr., a licensed boat captain, pitched the idea of including Pasco in the scalloping zone to the state conservation commission. He sees it as a family-friendly activity that could boost west Pasco, the heaviest populated area of the county that is targeted for redevelopment.

"Some of my fondest memories as a kid with my family were out scalloping,’’ said Wells, who tells people that scallop fishing is the equivalent of an underwater Easter egg hunt.

Scallops are in the same family as clams, mussels and oysters. They have fan-shaped, hinged shells. Humans consume the fleshy muscle that opens and closes the shell. Bay scallops harvested in the Gulf of Mexico can grow to up to about four inches long.

The idea is that allowing people to shove off from Pasco’s shore and head to Durney Key, Anclote Key, the sandbar at North Anclote or other spots to retrieve scallops from the seagrass beds will be a boon to the local economy.

For someone like Longman, a scallop season means adding boats — which retail for up to $30,0000 each — and renting them to customers for as much as $350 a day, plus the cost of fuel. Snorkels rent for $7 a day. She plans to add three employees to her staff of 10 if the state extends the season beyond 10 days in 2020. This year’s trial season won’t have much affect on her bottom line, she said, because her business traditionally is booked during the summer months.

For others, the scallop season is expected to mean busier restaurant dining rooms, more hotel rooms rented and a boost in fuel sales.

"It’s going to impact every little mom and pop business,’’ said Wells.

But trying to quantify that financial benefit accurately is difficult because there is no comparable data for a 10-day season, said Adam Thomas, Pasco’s tourism director who formerly held the same position in Citrus County.

Here’s what they found in Taylor County when the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension surveyed 159 people over eight dates in the 2017 scalloping season:

Eighty percent of the people leaving boat ramps were going scalloping, and on average each boat contained four to five people. Sixty-nine percent of the boats harvested the daily limit. (Two gallons of whole scallops in the shell or a pint of scallop meat per person.) Spending by people per boat averaged $376.30; fishing supplies and restaurant meals accounted for close to half of the commerce.

In Citrus County, Commission Chairman Ron Kitchen, quoting data from Tampa-based Research Data Services, said the scallop season generated a total economic impact of $86 million for that county in 2017. Kitchen’s comments came in a letter to the state conservation commission, which had considered, but didn’t follow through on a plan to cut the scalloping season by 24 days in Citrus and Hernando counties.

If Citrus estimates are accurate, it means the scalloping season there generates an average daily economic impact of $833,000.

"We’re not Citrus County,’’ Wells cautioned.

One of the tasks ahead is preparing Pasco’s coastal infrastructure for a presumed increase in boat traffic. The county has space to park 199 boat trailers at two west Pasco locations — Anclote and Hudson.

"Not enough,’’ said Keith Wiley, director of the county’s department of parks, recreation and natural resources.

Wells would like to double the number of parking spaces over the next two years and said the county is working with Duke Energy at Anclote and the city of Port Richey to try to do just that. Commissioners committed $5 million to improve boater access in west Pasco when they agreed last year to double the county’s tourist tax on overnight accommodations to 4 percent.

Between them, Nick’s Park in Port Richey and Sims Park in New Port Richey have about 40 spaces for boat trailers.

In that regard, Wells said the 10-day trial season is the right thing to do so Pasco can better prepare for what it hopes will be a full season in 2020.

It also will allow the state to determine if the ecosystem can sustain an annual scallop harvest in Pasco.

"The last thing we want is somebody coming into Pasco and saying, ‘I’m never going back. It’s terrible,’’’ said Wells.

Thomas, the tourism director, and his staff also must execute a marketing plan for the new tourist attraction. Citrus, he said, promoted scalloping as a fun, family experience.

"We never marketed it as ‘Come fill your buckets with scallops,’’’ he said.

These won’t be collegiate spring breakers coming to Pasco. The July season almost guarantees the visitors will be Floridians. The Taylor County surveys showed nearly four-fifths of the boaters there were from Florida with almost all of the others from Georgia. More than half had college degrees, more than three-quarters worked full time and 60 percent said they earned between $75,000 and $150,000 a year. In other words, it’s an influx of people with more disposable income than an average Pasco resident.

Commerce aside, Wells and Longman touted the opportunity to show off a quality of the county’s aesthetics than can’t be seen from dry land.

"It’s a hidden gem,’’ said Wells. "We may not have beaches, but the Nature Coast is beautiful. It’s something that’s going to be great to showcase Pasco County.’’

Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

RELATED: State extends scallop season to Pasco.