HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Divers shuffled across the deck, duck-footed in plastic flippers, and poured a shower of scallops into the gaping mouths of six waiting coolers.
Capt. Dan Yount reached in and pinched a scallop.
A tiny row of indigo eyes glittered back.
Yount shook his head.
"Just think," he said. "What you see here, and everything you see when you look down — scallops, sea grass, crabs, starfish — all that will be absolutely gone if the oil hits us."
The boat went quiet.
It was a rare damper on the otherwise frenzied cheerfulness of scallop season's opening day.
Experts say the Gulf of Mexico oil spill probably won't hit the Tampa Bay area, but nothing is certain.
A tropical storm or oil in the loop current could ruin the economy of sleepy waterfront towns like this one, which depend on fishing and the money it brings to local hotels, restaurants, marinas and stores.
Although the scalloping season traditionally begins July 1 and runs through Sept. 10, Gov. Charlie Crist bumped it up by 12 days to give those same local businesses a boost.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat the fact that later on, those areas might see oil," said Lee Schlesinger, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But this is about helping places that have been suffering because people are afraid to come."
It seemed to work. Saturday, Homosassa's boat ramp lines were long and chaotic by 7 a.m. and a seemingly endless line of boats roared toward open water under ominous storm clouds.
Business was booming on a weekend that doesn't usually see much action.
"I wouldn't be full this weekend if Charlie hadn't done what he did," said Jeff Grybek, who has owned Homosassa River Retreat for 22 years. "We're thankful because if oil comes here, forget it. We're done. No question."
Charles Adams, a professor of marine economics at the University of Florida, conducted a 2003 study on the impact of scalloping on the Citrus County economy. He said Crist's concern about the industry shows how important it is.
"If it wasn't an important part of the economy, no one would be worried about getting people to visit," Adams said.
Scalloping is often called an Easter egg hunt for adults. Divers swim to the sandy bottom and grab the shells, putting them in string bags before they can snap or swim away. The mollusks grow in shallow sea grass beds between the Hernando-Pasco county line and St. Joseph Bay in Gulf County.
The wildlife commission does not allow commercial scallop fishing and requires fishing licenses except on key holiday weekends. In addition, it restricts catches to 10 gallons a boat or two gallons per diver, whichever is less.
Scallops, which breathe by flushing water through their shells, are the "canaries of the sea," said Melanie Parker, an associate research scientist for the wildlife commission.
"They're one of the first species to show bad effects and potentially die," Parker said. "The forecast is not good if oil comes in."
But if oil hits Homosassa Bay and the surrounding water, Parker said not just scallops will disappear. An oil slick could kick off a deadly domino effect that would wipe out large portions of the gulf ecosystem and local economies.
Back on the docks, Homosassa's divers stood shoulder to shoulder at rough wooden counters and cleaned their catch, nursing beers and sunburned backs. They used miniature Shop-Vacs to suck excess muscle from the tiny pearls of scallop meat.
As the divers bagged and iced what was left of the bay scallops, a light rain began to fall.
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at [email protected] or at (352) 848-3179.