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Family on a boat scalloping together

Dive into a Delicious Adventure Scalloping in Citrus County

By Kent Smith Posted on June 10, 2021

Folks who love snatching up live, fresh bay scallops from the Nature Coast’s abundant waters are making reservations for the 2021 bay scallop season.

Slated July 1 through Sept. 24, Citrus County’s bay scallop harvesting season brings in waves of snorkelers from all over, searching for the tasty treat that thrives in Gulf waters from Pensacola to Key West.

According to Rachel Ford, Visitor Services Representative for the Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau, it’s one of the most important events held to stimulate the local economy and fishing industry.

To illustrate, Bureau Media and Content Manager, Miles Saunders, noted a Tampa survey company estimated 145,000 scalloping visitors enjoyed overnight stays in the county in 2018. Considering Citrus County’s population is currently about 150,000, “there’s a lot of people who will be staying in our hotels, RV parks and other accommodations,” Saunders said.   

In 2018, Citrus County’s population nearly doubled during scalloping season. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

Bay scallops are a bivalve mollusk similar to oysters, mussels and clams that prefer grassy bottoms 4- to 10-feet deep. They range in size from a grape to a bit smaller than a golf ball and, even though they are only about one-third the size of their cousin the sea scallop, their uniquely sweet meat is found on gourmet cuisines around the world.

Scallops are found throughout the Nature Coast region in shallow depths, growing among the seagrass. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

Scalloping is a very Popular Summer Activity on the Nature Coast

Bay scallop season brings droves of harvesters to Florida’s Gulf Coast every summer, partly because kids can participate by snorkeling down a few feet to gather them up, giving families a great outdoor adventure on the water. According to Discover Crystal River Florida: “When you jump into the water you see them, hidden like Easter eggs in the grassy bottom under 4-to-6 feet of water…some of the scallops attempt to ‘swim’ away, propelling themselves through the water by opening and closing their shells.”

Unfortunately, ecological conditions, heavy harvesting and fear of the Covid-19 Pandemic have affected the scallop business along the Nature Coast and beyond in recent years. Charter boat captains say there’s been a significant reduction in the number of scallops available.

Children can easily participate in Scalloping on Florida’s Nature Coast. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) did not conduct its Bay Scallop Season and Abundance Survey of open and closed areas in 2021 due to Covid-19 safety concerns. However, the 2020 survey reported the number of scallops that biologists counted in each random, 200-square-meter section of the Gulf over the previous eight years as 4.3 scallops in 2019; 2018, 20.1; 2017, 13; 2016, 20.2; 2015, 20.4; 2014, 9.4; 2013, 19.8; and 2012, 11.3. The all-time average is 15 scallops.

The Number of Scallops available for Harvest Varies Year-to-Year

In other words, they don’t know how many there will be this summer, but last year’s 4.3 total was way below both the all-time and seven-year averages, so it could be another off year.

Or a better one.

The scallop population can vary greatly from year-to-year. Whether adventurers garner a full bag of the delicious mollusks or only a few, it is always a fun, family-friendly adventure. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

“Scallop population abundance is highly variable because scallops live only one year and are sensitive to changes in water quality, like salinity. Abrupt changes in scallop population abundance may occur after major environmental events such as El Nino, hurricanes or major storms,” the 2020 report noted.

Yet people involved in Citrus’ scalloping industry say folks will still go out even if bag limits are reduced by the FWC. “It’s not about getting food. It’s about getting out on the water, the outdoor experience, especially for the kids,” one longtime captain said. “As long as they can bag a few scallops, they’re coming back.”

Help Scientists Collect Data while Having Fun Scalloping

Kids can be junior marine biologists with the data they gather scalloping. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

For instance, harvesters can become a junior marine biologist while they’re harvesting.

Help scientists learn more about how many scallops live along the Nature Coast by submitting your own data to a FWC web survey at myfwc.com/fishing. Just click on the link marked “Bay Scallop Web Survey Taps Recreational Harvesters”. Participants can tell where and how many scallops they took, how long it takes to harvest the shellfish or email questions, photos and videos to the state.

Here, a father and daughter point to scallops lying in wait for harvest. This simple family activity can be very rewarding. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

 “More comprehensive information on the fishery could benefit recreational anglers, charter boat captains, and the tourism industry in communities where bay scallops are harvested,” the commission reported, adding “biologists hope to gain a greater understanding of the species’ biology and range limitations…what they learn about bay scallop abundance in individual areas of the fishery will enhance the accuracy of their next annual report.”

After more than 30 years as a local, die-hard fisherman and fishing correspondent, Nick Stubbs is considered an expert by many on such matters, and he concurs with the FWC report. He says Citrus and other area scallop grounds are recovering from a series of hurricanes that buffeted gulf waters just off the coastline a few years back, noting the storms somehow upset the environment where scallops feed.

Citrus County is Fertile Scallop Grounds

Scallops are gathered from the sandy, grassy bottom and kept in a net bag while scalloping. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

“The patchy, sandy, grassy bottom off Citrus County is fertile scallop grounds, but the numbers have been down due to these storms. You also had fewer boats out last year due to the Covid concerns,” he said. Stubbs said the fishing commission has also “theorized the storms messed with the spawning cycle of the scallops,” so it may take a couple of years for the numbers to bounce back.

 “Scallops are a big deal in Citrus because the numbers are much lower south of there,” he said.

Bay Scallop Season map for 2021 season is courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Scalloping is Available in Hernando and Pasco Counties Also

Indeed, scallop season in Pasco County is only 10 days long again this year, starting the third Friday in July, partly due to many years of over-harvesting.

The Hernando County season covers the same two months as Citrus offers, but Bayport fishing Captain Josh Fritz says he’s not doing scallop charters this year because ebbing demand and the hassle of waiting for low tide so snorkelers can hit the water isn’t worth it: “I had 40 fishing charters last season and only 20 for scallops…It just isn’t worth it,” the longtime pilot stated.

Families come from all over to scallop in Citrus County, according to Captain Harold Butler. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

The Scalloping Industry is going Strong in Citrus County, despite 2020’s Limited Bay Scallop Supply

But north of Hernando, Citrus County charter Captain Harold Butler said the industry itself is going strong, even though the last three years have not been good regarding scallop numbers. He said it might help to have harvesting season after spawning season in late September and October, but he isn’t criticizing how officials are handling it.

“We need to come up with an answer…From four through 10 years ago the numbers were good,” the 17-year veteran said. “It’s important to the economy. At times there have been 300 to 500 boats out there off Homosassa and Crystal River. We get families that come here from other states, and they might stay here for a week.”

Finding “the answer” was the objective at meetings of local and state officials two years ago that produced a detailed study for supporting the scallop population, like protecting the spawning season and lower bag limits to prevent over-harvesting. It included the Citrus County Tourist and Development Council, the FWC and local fishermen working together to avoid the “S” word: Suspension of the season.

“They can’t suspend the season because they’ll lose hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s not necessary,” Butler said.

Scallop Season is about Connecting with your Family

Local and state officials met in 2019 to ensure families can continue to enjoy hunting for scallops in the Nature Coast. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

John Pricher is the director of Discover Crystal River, Citrus County’s Visitor Bureau. He said the group determined the main reason for lower numbers was an increase in rainfall that decreased the level of salinity (salt) in the water around the scallop grounds; noting that a subsequent decrease in rain in 2020 resulted in a scallop increase.

Pricher said he was tasked at the meetings with coming up with measures to counteract the reduction in numbers. He suggested some, but the FWC hasn’t added them to their usual scallop regulations: “They’re still under study.”

“Scallop season is about connecting with your family. A beautiful day on the water where all ages take part, catch some scallops for dinner and tell fish tales to their friends,” he said. “Your vacation dollar goes further here than it does at just about any place in the state.” 

The salinity of the Gulf may affect the number of scallops available for harvest. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

Some Local Captains are Optimistic for a Great Scallop Season in 2021

Another optimistic forecast came from Amanda Tapia, Office Manager for the Adventure Center at Plantation: “We expect this to be a really great season with some good numbers, especially if the weather cooperates. Our scallop numbers were down worse in 2019 than 2020 because the storms affected the salinity of the water. In 2020 we had a lot of boats go out.”

Tapia said her company arranges charter trips with private captains, adding they have a lot of boats available.

Snorkeling in 6 to 10 feet of water, while looking for bivalves in the seagrass is a great summer recreational activity on Florida’s Nature Coast. Image by Romona Robbins/Romona Robbins Photography, courtesy of Discover Crystal River.

Be sure to Follow Florida’s Scalloping Regulations

State officials remind recreational scallopers to consult current regulations in the plan on harvest periods, locations, and other rules before hitting the water because they change often. Guidelines are available at myfwc.com.

For instance, this year Citrus, Hernando, or Pasco County’s daily bag limit allows two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or one pint of scallop meat per person; each vessel can take 10 gallons of whole scallops or a half-gallon of scallop meat per day.

Scallopers are required to display a dive flag on their watercraft and have a saltwater fishing license, unless using a charter boat.

Consider a Family Vacation Rental for your Family Scalloping Adventure

For more information on Scalloping in Citrus County, contact myfwc.com/fishing, discovercrystalriverfl.com, or mailto:[email protected]; you can also call 850-488-4676, 352-302-263, 352-795-5797, or 352-794-5506.

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