Break out the mask and snorkel, fill the cooler with ice and gas up the boat. It’s scallop season.
Argopecten irradians, as they are known only by the nerdiest of biologists, are ready for harvest in Levy, Citrus and Hernando counties beginning Monday through Sept. 24. This includes Crystal River, Homosassa and Steinhatchee, the most popular spots near us.
Here is a primer for the season, including where to find them, what to bring and why the North Suncoast is such a hot spot and Tampa Bay is not.
Where to go
Unlike a favorite fishing spot, good scalloping grounds are not much of a secret. The waters off of Hernando and Citrus counties tend to have the best conditions and hold the most scallops. They hang out on the grass flats in water about 2 to 8 feet deep.
Also, there is now a short season in Pasco County from Aripeka down to Anclote Key in Tarpon Springs. It’s only from July 19-28. The short season started in 2018 after 24 years of no scalloping in the area.
“We recently opened that up for a 10-day season and we’ll do that for two or three years unless we see any issues," said Amanda Nalley, a spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The season has already opened in Dixie County and the southern part of Taylor County, running through Sept. 10. In Franklin County and northwest Taylor County, the season also opens on July 1 and runs through Sept. 24.
In Gulf County, the season is from Aug. 16 to Sept. 15.
“The seasons we have now will be in place for the future," Nalley said. “We don’t have plans to revisit this every year."
Once the water temperature begins to rise, scallops start to form in the grass flats. They become plentiful in certain areas by early to mid-summer and continue to grow. The later in the season, the bigger the scallops. Still, a bay scallop usually only gets to about 3 inches in length and is smaller than the sea scallops seen in restaurants.
The FWC, which sets the dates for each area, consults with local leaders and scientists to settle on how many days in a season for a particular region and when it will start.
“We try to work with the communities," Nalley said. “We also keep in mind the fact that is this is a season that can be sustainable? We met with people in all of those communities. For example, in Gulf County, they wanted a later season. They have a good summer tourism season and don’t feel they need scallops to bring in people. For other areas, they wanted an earlier season because their community depends heavily on the summer season."
Why not Tampa Bay?
There was a time when scallops were plentiful in Tampa Bay. But it has been more than 30 years since scalloping was viable. Thanks to pollution and boat traffic, scallops fell to almost zero in the bay.
The fishery has slowly recovered but not even close to the numbers needed for an open season. Tampa Bay Watch, located in Tierra Verde, performs all kinds of restoration projects in the area. They conduct an annual scallop search every August.
According to Eric Plage, an environmental specialist for Tampa Bay Watch, there were 256 scallops found during the 2017 search (last year’s was cancelled due to red tide). Plage said in the early 2000s, the search peaked with between 400 to 500 scallops.
“Five or six years ago we had three," Plage said. “If you get one factor it can set it back for five or ten years. All in all, if we can find scallops it is an indicator that the water quality is good. They are really susceptible to pollution, so just to find any is a really good sign that things are on the up."
Plage said he heard reports that small scallops were found near Weedon Island, which is unusual that deep into the bay. Most of the scallops found are near the mouth of the bay, where salinity is higher.
This year’s voluntary search is Aug. 24. Sign up will be in mid-July. They typically get 200 people and 40 boats, as well as people in kayaks and on paddle boards.
Plage has no idea how many scallops will be found, but knows it won’t be enough to warrant an open season.
“It would be tough," Plage said. “The hope would be that scallops are doing so well in the bay that you could open it up to a recreational harvest. The reality is, we have a water shed that has 2.7 million people. Crystal River and places like that have a much smaller water shed. Realistically, their water quality is much better because they have less coming into it.
“You can see there has been drastic improvements in water quality in Tampa Bay over the past decade. But in all reality, is there going to be a day where everywhere you step there is a scallop? That’s a little ways down the road if at all."
What do you need?
Most scallopers use a snorkel and mask as well as a good pair of fins. SCUBA gear certainly makes things a bit easier, but it is not necessary. Also make sure to bring a net that seals to contain the scallops. Mesh bags that can attach to the wrist are best.
And of course, lather on the sun screen or wear a rash guard.
Also, bring a cooler full of ice to store the scallops. Once they’re onboard, make sure you have a cleaning tool, like a knife or shucker. Pry the shells apart, remove the guts, scrape the muscle off the shell and put it in a container.
If shucking isn’t your thing, there are usually people at the docks who will do it for a fee.
It is legal to keep 2 gallons of scallops in the shell, or one pint of meat per person. One boat may keep 10 gallons in the shell or a half gallon of meat. If there are that many scallops on the boat, you have had a very good day.
A saltwater fishing license is needed for those who are snorkeling or SCUBA diving from a boat. A license is not needed for those who are wading from the shore.
For a complete list, go to myfwc.com.
How to get them
Think of it as an Easter egg hunt. The scallops are usually nestled in the grass flats with their blue eyes and shells open, filtering food out of the water. Spot one, dive down and grab the top and bottom of the shells. (Try not to get your finger stuck between the shells. That could leave a mark).
What is a scallop anyway?
Bay scallops are bivalves that live in grass flats with the right mixture of salt and fresh water. Any change in the environment can cause a reduction in population. Scallops have a muscle that allows them to propel backwards through the water, so at times it may be a challenge to snag them off the bottom.
Fun fact: Scallops have female and male sexual organs. When the water temperature changes in the fall, scallops spend almost all of their energy reproducing. One scallop can produce millions of eggs at once, but only one in 12 million is likely to reach adulthood. Oh, and after they reproduce, the scallop usually dies.
“They spawn when there is a change in water temperature," Plage said. “Typically the life cycle of a bay scallop is a year. They get big and spawn and typically the act of spawning leaves them pretty tired and they are susceptible to predators."
Do divers ever get all the scallops?
With hundreds of boats visiting the grass flats near Crystal River and Homosassa each week, it would seem as if the area would be picked over before the season ends. Not the case. For sure, some seasons are better than others.
“What you see in certain areas is different," Nalley said. “One year we could be doing great and finding tons of scallops and the next year it could not be so great. They are impacted by issues like Red Tide, hurricanes or water quality."
But all things being normal, there are scallops to be found until the last day of the season.
“We take into consideration not just how many scallops are in the water, but how many scallops have the potential to be removed in that area," Nalley said. “Can a harvest be sustained? That’s the key."