We passed a half-dozen boaters asking each person the same question: “Have you found any scallops yet?”
“No,” each participant in the third annual Sarasota Bay Watch Scallop Search shouted, as we glided past them in Cannons Marina owner David Miller’s boat.
In the bay area between the Longbeach Village and Sister Keys, I decided to strap on a mask and snorkel and jump off the boat to see if I could find a scallop. I felt with my feet for the shellfish in the seagrass where scallops live. I dove underwater when I felt a shell, but I couldn’t see much in the murky green water. I did, however, see a school of dolphins swimming just feet away from me as I searched.
But what I couldn’t spot was a scallop.
Turns out I wasn’t alone. At the third annual Sarasota Bay scallop search Saturday, Aug. 28, the 150 volunteers who met at Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub found just 15 scallops. The number seemed small compared to last year, when participants found 160 scallops, and the inaugural year in 2008, when a whopping 900 scallops were counted. But, according to Sarasota Bay Watch President Rusty Chinnis, the number shouldn’t be cause for concern.
“What was really an oddity was the first year,” Chinnis said. “The first year, we figured if we found 15 (we would have) been lucky.”
In past years, Tampa Bay Watch has held scallop searches in which not a single scallop was counted. The first year’s abnormally high count in Sarasota Bay came during a drought, when little runoff was present in the water.
But, although the scallop population can be affected by changes in the water quality, Dr. Jay Leverone, staff scientist with Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, said that population trends are the likely culprit behind the drop.
According to Leverone, scallops are especially vulnerable to low dissolved oxygen levels, low salinity levels and red tide.
“None of those things has occurred in Sarasota Bay this year,” he said. “There’s no smoking gun with respect to water quality.”
Instead, Leverone said, the more likely cause is a natural population fluctuation. Scallops typically have a one-year life cycle. Even a 1% change in larvae that find a successful habitat in seagrass can translate to 100-fold changes in the scallop population. But Leverone said the purpose of a scallop search isn’t just to report a number to researchers, it’s to generate interest in the bay and give participants a firsthand look at nature.
“It offers a public outreach and stewardship, as well as generates data for our scientists to use,” Leverone said.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].