Chalk up on more potential casualty to Hurricane Michael; the 2019 scallop harvest season in St. Joseph Bay.
During a public workshop last week researchers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reviewed recent seasons and restoration efforts and examined the impacts of a red tide event that premature ended the 2018.
The red tide event, of course, led right into the arrival of Hurricane Michael.
Both the red tide and storm, researchers noted, occurred during peak spawning season.
During a December survey of St. Joseph Bay researchers could not find a single live adult scallop.
In addition, mortality rates were 90 percent for the scallops caged in the southern middle of the bay as part of ongoing restoration efforts; typically researchers would expect a mortality rate of 10-50 percent.
The remaining scallops were transported to a hatchery, but are considered in poor condition and not expected to produce much juvenile “spat.”
There was some, but it was limited, spat settlement occurring in the bay.
There were some points of light provided.
Scallops produce quickly and with populations of predators such as pinfish dropping after the hurricane, the path for a quick rebound could be there.
“They are built to take advantage of a situation like this,” said one researcher.
Additionally, restoration efforts in the bay had also proved to be taking hold, with scallop numbers jumping from less than one per research station in 2016 to more than eight in 2018.
And a great unknown to researchers is how the hydrology of the bay has changed with the infusion of saltwater from the breach created at the peninsula state park.
All of it together, though, leaves the annual June survey of adult scallops the next crucial milestone in assessing the scallop population in St. Joseph Bay.
Meanwhile, the Gulf County season is the one season statewide that staff has not determined a recommendation to bring before the FWC board later this month.
It was one of the primary reasons for the workshop, to solicit public input on the options staff has sketched out.
Those include five options, ranging from setting dates for the 2019 season similar to those for 2018, with a mid-August start and an end of September close to considering closing the 2019 season altogether.
Opinions were mixed.
“Closing the bay is the only option,” said Nancy Jones, noting that the environment of the bay post-Michael needs more careful study. “Let’s let the bay recover and send a positive image that we take care of our natural resources.”
There were a couple of the dozen or so speakers who were of similar mind, but who also folded in a sentiment expressed by Dr. Pat Hardman of the Coastal Community Association.
“We have an economic situation in a year when we want people to come here,” Hardman said. “Number one, we need a scallop population … but closing the seasons puts a bad stamp on the bay … on the whole community.”
The situation is not entirely unlike late 2015 into early 2016 when the red tide event rendered the adult scallop “collapsed” according to researchers who were poised to recommend closing the bay.
However, pushback from the community during a pair of town hall meetings compelled staff to open a compressed 14-day season.
Several others said no matter how much they might agree that closing the bay for one year might be a good thing, the economics, the financial situation post-Michael, fueled a different tack.
“Politics aside, I would say close the bay,” said Jim Bush. “But if you have to have a season, open it late and make a decision on closing after the June survey.”
Bush also echoed arguments made in recent years that the state should build a dam or lock along the Intracoastal Waterway/Gulf County Canal to prevent the influx of freshwater from the north.
That, Bush said, should be done in conjunction with maintaining the breach at the peninsula state park to improve the overall health of the bay and scallop population.
But by a considerable consensus, as voiced by Greg Matney, the public input was to maintain the status quo, announcing a season starting late in the summer with a final decision to come after the June survey.
Maybe, as an FWC researcher noted, it would be fourth-straight season in which opening or closing would happen with little notice; the general consensus from residents was that was a better option than closing the bay outright.