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  1. Hernando

Don't worry about getting pinched: Scallop population numbers low in Hernando County

It's that time of year again. Humid summer days and pockets of thunderstorms are ushering in the start of scalloping season in Hernando County. The season began July 1 and runs until Sept. 24.

But eager scallopers may have trouble finding the shellfish. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that this year there are two scallops per 200 square meters in Hernando County waters, compared to 3.5 estimated in 2018.

Area scallopers already were voicing concerns this week on social media about small returns, but the low number is not yet concerning Fish and Wildlife officials.

"There are years that have gone from very low populations to very good abundance," said Ryan Gandy, research scientist with Fish and Wildlife's shellfish program.

Low population numbers year after year may signal to the Commission that something is wrong with the bay scallop population, Gandy said, but in general, scallop populations are highly variable. Water salinity and the placement of scallop larvae, whether it be in the sea grass or a less fruitful location, can affect the scallops' growth and health.

The abundance of scallop predators, such as pinfish and pufferfish, can affect them, too, Gandy said.

"These species are a lot like potato chips," Gandy said. "Everybody likes to eat 'em."

Citrus County, whose season also began Monday, is seeing an even more dramatic drop in its scallop population. The county's 2019 estimate is 4.3 scallops per 200 square meters, down from 21.1 last year. Based on the many environmental factors, it's difficult to pinpoint what caused the population drop, said Kate Spratt, a captain who leads recreational scallop trips in Citrus County.

She and some other experienced scallopers went out Saturday along three miles of the Citrus County coast and stopped at pockets of deep and shallow waters. They found about a dozen scallops in four hours, she said.

During a normal season for half a day out on the water, Spratt said she would limit out -- two gallons per person or 10 gallons per boat of scallops in their shells.

"I'm not going to lie, what we found was disturbing and disappointing," she said in a Facebook post about the Saturday trip. Spratt said it's possible that the scallops were pushed out to deeper water last fall by Hurricane Michael.

Last year, Pratt advocated for shortening the Citrus County season, she said in the post, because the numbers have been declining. This year, she had a more dire prediction.

"With the populations that we've observed already this year, I foresee an inevitable and indefinite closure of the scalloping fishery," she wrote in the post.

In the meantime, Spratt reminded scallopers to observe the daily collection limits and mind the sensitive coastal water environment.

Contact Sarah Verschoor at Follow @SarahVerschoor.