Scientific name: Argopecten irradians
Size: About 2 inches
Distribution: Throughout Florida's west coast and as far north as West Palm Beach on the east
Habitat: Sea grass beds and shallow waters of estuaries
Life span: 12-18 months
Source: Tampa Bay Watch
A sting ray, a few crabs, and an empty scallop shell encrusted with barnacles.
That's what a four-hour search in the shallow water off Mullet Key yielded Saturday for three University of South Florida students participating in the annual Great Bay Scallop Search.
Disappointed, Denis Voytenko, Tyler Weinand and Jason Bellino headed back to shore, where they learned that other members of the 160-volunteer team recruited by Tampa Bay Watch had been more successful at spotting the elusive mollusks.
All told, the volunteers sighted a record 624 scallops, about 75 more than last year. That's good news, not only for the scallops, but for the health of the bay, Tampa Bay Watch director Peter Clark said.
"There were a lot of boats that found small amounts over a greater area than we've ever seen," Clark said. "That means conditions that support scallops are improving around the bay, not just near the Gulf of Mexico."
The 75-square-mile search was by no means exhaustive, Clark said, but served as "a good broad brush measuring tool" of water quality since scallops — sometimes likened to a canary in a coal mine — are extremely sensitive to changes in water temperature and salinity.
Bay scallops were plentiful in Tampa Bay until the 1960s, when they fell victim to water pollution from dredging operations and industrial and municipal wastes.
In recent years, Tampa Bay Watch, Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have worked to increase the bay scallop population by raising scallops in laboratories and releasing juveniles into the bay.
The Great Bay Scallop Search uncovered only one live scallop three years ago. The following year, volunteers found 17, and last year, the number jumped to 555.
But the species has by no means made a full-fledged comeback, Clark said.
"We would like to get the numbers up to what they are in the Crystal River area," he said. "People would love to see this resource return so they can take their children out hunting for scallops the way they did when they were kids."
Donna Winchester can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8413. Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.