1. Pasco

Dive, dive, dive: Scallop season begins in Pasco County

HOLIDAY — Blue skies and still waters ushered in the first day of Pasco County's mini scalloping season, which runs through July 28.

"What a beautiful day to be out on the waterfront," said state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. The start of a second season is another opportunity for people from around the world to come to the county, he said.

Hooper, Pasco County officials, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff and journalists gathered at Anclote River Park on Friday for a season kick-off. This is the second year boaters have been allowed to drop anchor and suit up in snorkel gear in search of bay scallops in Pasco County waters. A ban had kept scallop divers out of Pasco waters for 25 years.

Pasco's mini season lasts 10 days. Longer scalloping seasons in neighboring Hernando and Citrus counties started July 1, and some have reported a struggle to find scallops.

Official counts from Fish and Wildlife Commission preseason surveys show Citrus County with a drop from an average of 21.1 scallops per 200 square meters in 2018 to 4.3 in 2019. Hernando County had an average of 2 scallops per 200 square meters this year.

But there was little fluctuation in the numbers for Pasco County. Last year's average was 6.1 scallops per 200 square meters. This year it was 6.4, according to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Fish and Wildlife officials have said the drop is not a cause for concern yet, as scallop populations are cyclical and weather from Hurricane Michael could have pushed them out to deeper waters.

"Our goal is always to create a sustainable opportunity," said Tom Graef, Fish and Wildlife Commission southwest regional director.

The Commission is monitoring population counts from year to year and checking the results of end-of-season surveys, Graef said.

For Devon Soldano, a charter captain and owner of Mermaid Slayers in Tarpon Springs, the mini season is more about the experience than about how abundant the scallops are. He takes groups out all year for private events, fishing, scuba diving and recently ferried a family to spread ashes of a loved one.

The best way to get the scallops is to dive and bring a small net, he said. Scallops often live in thick, tall grass. Finding them can be difficult.

"It's not as easy as you might think," Soldano said. One crew member, Brendan Schorden, went in the water for about a half hour and had no luck finding a scallop in the murky water.

The Mermaid Slayers boat was anchored near Anclote Key Preserve State Park, where dozens of other boats also were stopped in search of scallops.

Mermaid Slayers was booked for a week, although Soldano said he might take a day off to go out with his family. They took a few groups out last year, but the weather was bad for most of the 10-day season, he said.

Pasco County officials hope the popularity of scallop season grows. They plan to invest in improvements at Anclote River Park. At a July meeting, county commissioners approved a land swap between Duke Energy and the county that would allow the parks department to improve traffic flow and trailer parking and possibly add boat ramps.

The Pasco County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department surveyed scallopers during the season's first weekend and will continue surveying this weekend. Officials said that on average ,people found 20 scallops per boat, with one group bringing in 100.

The hunt is on.

Contact Sarah Verschoor at sverschoor@tampabaycom. Follow @SarahVerschoor.