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Scalloping ban to end in July

Backed with evidence that bay scallop populations have surged from Crystal River to Weeki Wachee, state officials have ordered the resumption of recreational harvesting beginning in July.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this month moved to rescind a 1994 ban and though a final rule will not be voted on until April, "the handwriting is on the wall," said spokesman Lee Schlesinger.

"There would have to be some rather compelling information brought forward to keep this from happening," he said Friday.

Citrus County officials welcomed the prospect but are pushing for a slightly shorter season than the state commission. "I don't want to see us go back and deplete the stock again," County Commissioner Gary Bartell said.

Before the ban, thousands of people flocked to Citrus each summer in search of the sweet tasting mollusks that live in the shallow bay waters.

Scalloping generated between $3-million and $5-million annually in tourism revenue for the county, according to some estimates.

Under the state proposal, the season would begin July 1 and last through Sept. 10. The county wants the season to begin later in July, when tourism business begins to dip.

Packing even more people into the area over the Fourth of July weekend could draw down the scallop population, said Mary Craven, the county's tourism director.

Scalloping would be allowed in some areas between the Suwannee River and the Weeki Wachee River.

Areas south of that, such as Anclote and Tampa Bay, would remain closed as a similar resurgence has not been documented.

Meantime, the state plans to close all areas west of St. Joseph Bay in Gulf County because the population is showing signs of stress. That is what happened in the Homosassa region beginning in the late 1980s. Biologists are not sure why the population declined, but water pollution and unrestricted harvesting are suspected.

Between 1993 and 1998, no more than 25 scallops per 600 square meters were counted in Citrus County, with most years hovering below 5.

Today there are 299 scallops over that same area, according to an annual census conducted by Bill Arnold, a research scientist for the Florida Marine Research Institute.

"We didn't expect this level of resurgence," Arnold said. "I felt like any level of success would have been exceptional. But Homosassa is the most abundant population in the state right now."

The reasons for that upswing are still unclear, Arnold said. It could be a result of the ban or a restocking program begun in 1997, or a combination of both factors.

While some residents, particularly those in Homosassa, wanted the ban lifted this summer, officials say it was best to wait. "It shows that sometimes when you bite the bullet, it does pay off," Schlesinger said.

Gator MacRae, who owns a bait shop and motel on the Homosassa River, has traveled to Steinhatchee for scallops and is glad he'll have the opportunity to catch them at home. "It will be a good thing for a lot of businesses. Recreation wise, it will be a blast. It's a family-oriented outing."