With fingers crossed, not any easy thing while utilizing a keyboard, the scallop season for Gulf County and St. Joseph Bay is set to open Friday.
Eight months since the adult scallop population was marked absent from the Bay by state researchers, the scallop season begins the countdown to its Sept. 15 closure with projections for a historically-bountiful harvest.
All, of course, as residents and visitors are well aware, is stated with a significant caveat.
None of the past three seasons have worked out as scheduled.
In 2016, after the Bay’s scallop population was deemed collapsed, the harvest season was just 10 days; the following year due an algae bloom, the season was just 14 days and last year red tide closed the season with a few days remaining.
However, the annual survey of the Bay’s adult population in June and July unveiled a remarkable recovery by the tasty little mollusks.
At each of the 200-square meter transect stations researchers surveyed, covering more than 12,000 square meters of the St. Joseph Bay, researchers found on average 66.1 scallops.
Let us compare.
Three years ago the Bay’s adult scallop population was collapsed and measured less than one scallop per transect station.
Two years later, 2018, restoration efforts showed traction as the average scallops per transect increased more than three-fold to 8.1.
The average per season in St. Joseph Bay since 2012 is, in fact, 8.1. This year’s increase is more than 800 percent beyond that.
Examining all state scallop harvest sites since 2012, Dixie County in 2016 with an average of 66.3 per transect station was the only higher number from any June survey of adult scallop populations.
There is no year recorded by the state for St. Joseph Bay during which the adult scallop population reached such levels as this year.
Researchers are trying to figure out the dynamics and how the Bay went from no adults found late last year after Hurricane Michael to such bounty.
One thing researchers found is that while they gained access to the bay too late to formally assess spawning season due to Michael, there was evidence and capture of spat, or juvenile scallops.
Scallops are unusual in that they reproduce within the water column. They also have a lifespan of just a year, making long-term research a challenge.
Observing and capturing some spat indicated to researchers that there were indeed larvae in the Bay, but due to the loss of restoration traps and cages in the storm there were gaps in the available data.
“We were unable to ascertain the magnitude of the spat settlement event,” said Ryan Gandy, research administrator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Wildlife Research Institute.
“While seeing spat gave us hope, there are many factors that could reduce this population of young scallops.”
Researchers were “cautiously optimistic” early this year; which has been the local sentiment since 2016.
The spring adult population surveys justified the optimism. “Sure enough, the conditions had been right for the spat to grow to adults and the resulting abundance is good,” Gandy said.
Researchers are seeking the source of the larvae that became the adults in such numbers.
“Our scientists are working to determine if our restoration efforts aided in this recovery or if the larvae came from sources outside St. Joe Bay,” Gandy said.
For scallopers, that research is almost beside the point as of Friday.
Conditions for the season are trending up for the first time in at least three years.
The region opening for scallop harvest includes all state waters from the Mexico Beach Canal to the westernmost point of St. Vincent Island.
Swimming, boating and scalloping is prohibited in the area marked by FWC buoys south of Black’s Island, where cages are located as part of ongoing restoration efforts.