Someone needs to watch Florida’s dwindling scallop population. Enter the ‘scallop sitters’

A new Hernando County-based program will have volunteers shepherd caged groups of the shellfish from Pasco through Citrus counties.
This scallop was caught in 2018, during Pasco County's first scalloping season in 24 years. In counties to the north, scallop populations decreased for the 2019 season, prompting the call for "scallop sitters." [Times (2018)]
This scallop was caught in 2018, during Pasco County's first scalloping season in 24 years. In counties to the north, scallop populations decreased for the 2019 season, prompting the call for "scallop sitters." [Times (2018)]
Published Aug. 27, 2019

HERNANDO BEACH — Joe Calabro returned from the first day of scalloping season this summer with the feeling that something terrible was happening.

Calabro has headed into the Gulf of Mexico to scallop every summer for the past 10 years. Along with spearfishing and other marine past-times, it was part of the reason he and his wife moved to Hernando Beach three years ago, he said. Over the past few years, though, he noticed fewer and fewer scallops, at least in the spots he frequented.

This year was even worse, he said, shockingly so. Three or four hours of searching turned up barely a dozen scallops. He threw them all back.

A few weeks later, he saw a Facebook post seeking volunteer “scallop sitters,” people who could help shepherd the wild scallop population living in the waters off Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties through the fall and winter months. Volunteers would need only a boat and the time to go out on the Gulf once a month, and Calabro had both.

“I feel like I’ve benefited so many years” from scallop harvesting, he said. “Maybe it’s time I did something to help get it back.”

Calabro wasn’t the only one who noticed the dearth of scallops. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimated that only two scallops lived in every 200 square meters of Hernando County waters this year, down from 3.5 last year. In Citrus County, the drop was even more severe, from 21.1 scallops per 200 square meters last year to 4.3 this year. The Pasco County count this year was 6.4 per 200 square meters, a slight bump from last year’s 6.1.

Early in the season, a Fish and Wildlife scientist told the Tampa Bay Times that several variables could affect the population, and it could bounce back naturally. But Brittany Scharf had heard Hernando County residents’ outcry over the missing scallops, and she put out the call for sitters.

Scharf is an agent at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension in Hernando County. This small-scale project doesn’t aim to bolster the population, she said, but rather “to keep things from eating them and try to keep their chances of survival, especially because the population was so low this year.”

As of last week, Scharf was still waiting for Fish and Wildlife officials to give final approval on the project. Once they do, she said, scallops will be gathered in groups of 50 and caged. She has about 25 cages available, though Scharf said she doesn’t expect to find that many scallops.

The cages will be anchored in Gulf waters. Over the next several months, 46 volunteers will clean the cages, collect data on salinity and monitor the population. Scallops still living in February will be re-released into their natural habitats.

Scallops have a short lifespan, she said, but the scallop-sitting hopefully will keep them safe through mating season. It also could provide some useful data, as most of the project will take place between the 2019 post-scallop-season count by Fish and Wildlife and the 2020 pre-season count.

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Similar projects have been done before, she said, but they have involved introducing farm-raised scallops into the population. This project will involve only scallops already living in the Gulf. Their locations will stretch from Pasco County in the south to the Homosassa area of Citrus County in the north, as scallops across that span belong to the same genetic population.

“Getting the community involved and aware of what kind of things do impact scallop populations — it’s important to be aware," she said, "so we can continue to have scalloping season in the future.”