First, the bad news: Scallop season is still closed in Tampa Bay. The good news: Scallop numbers in local waters have increased sevenfold since last year, according to state officials.
"We are seeing exceptional numbers," said Bill Arnold, the state's primary scallop researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "I am impressed with how well scallops have come back."
The Tampa Bay area did not have a large scallop industry, but 50 years ago, the waters of Pine Island Sound had enough of these mollusks to support a commercial harvest.
But scallops are delicate creatures. Researchers have often compared them to a "canary in a coal mine." When scallops disappear from an estuary, it is a sure sign that something is wrong.
Manmade alterations to the landscape, such as the causeway to Sanibel Island, may have disrupted the natural flow, causing the southwest Florida scallop population to plummet.
Scallops need a mixture of saltwater and freshwater to survive. If rains are heavy (years of numerous hurricanes) too much freshwater may flood the bay and wipe out a scallop crop. If the water is too salty, they won't survive, either.
"They do best in water with a salinity of 20 parts per thousands," Arnold said. "The Gulf of Mexico is about 35 parts per thousand. If too much freshwater gets bottled up in the bay, they won't survive. That is why we find most of our scallops west of the Skyway."
The state's prime scallop grounds — Homosassa, Crystal River and Steinhatchee — are located where freshwater and saltwater mix.
"The populations are isolated and spread out," Arnold said. "But the larvae can travel all the way up the coast, so in a way they are all connected."
In 1994, with scallop stocks declining, state officials decided to shut down the commercial season everywhere and shut down the recreational season south of the Suwannee River, including Crystal River and Homosassa, once considered two of the state's best scallop spots. But in 2001, state officials decided to reopen the area between the Suwannee and the Pasco-Hernando county line because the stocks had recovered.
However, recreational scalloping was still prohibited south of the Pasco-Hernando county line, which included the waters surrounding Anclote Key.
But researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg and USF have had aggressive restocking or "seeding" programs in place for more than a decade. Years of work may begin bearing fruit.
"We are not pushing to reopen the season right now," Arnold said. "But one of our goals is to expand the range of the recreational scalloping in Florida."
Scallop season along Florida's gulf coast opened July 1 and runs through Sept. 10. It is legal to gather scallops north of the Pasco-Hernando county line to the west bank of the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County.
It is against the law to possess bay scallops on the water outside open harvest areas. It is also illegal to land scallops outside open harvest areas. For example, you cannot scallop in the waters off Hernando County, then land your catch in Pasco County.
It is legal to land up to 2 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or 1 pint of scallop meat each day during the open season. Recreational scallopers may not possess more than 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or a half gallon of meat aboard any boat.
You may only catch bay scallops by hand or with a landing or dip net. They cannot be sold for commercial purposes.