There was cautious optimism for a scallop harvest season late last year when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a town hall meeting on the population in St. Joseph Bay.
At the time, the news was gloomy, researchers unable to locate live adult scallops and spat collectors, onto which juvenile scallops attach, were gone.
All cages used as part of a multi-year effort to restore the Bay’s scallop population were damaged or destroyed.
But, seven months later, the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute completed its survey of the St. Joseph Bay adult scallop population and the numbers are remarkable.
Numbers which are possibly record setting, at least in the past decade or so of St. Joseph Bay surveys, and almost record-setting statewide.
At each 200-square meter transect station, surveying more than 12,000 square meters of the Bay, researchers found on average 66.1 scallops in St. Joseph Bay.
Let that number linger in the brain a moment.
Three years ago the adult scallop population in the Bay was considered collapsed, researchers finding, on average, fewer than one scallop per transect station.
Last year, restoration efforts were believed to have shown progress as the average per transect increased more than three-fold to 8.1.
This year’s increase is more than 800 percent.
Since 2012, that 8.1 per-transect average had been the highest in St. Joseph Bay.
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 a June survey.
Researchers set to work immediately upon gaining access to the Bay weeks following Michael.
“As soon as we could safely access the Bay we immediately began re-deploying new spat collectors, but it was late in the spawning season,” said Ryan Gandy, a Research Administrator with the Wildlife Research Institute.
“However, even though we had missed the peak spawning period we were able to capture settling spat at the tail end of the spawning period.”
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.
Spawning season is fall into early winter.
The presence of spat indicated to researchers that there were indeed larvae in the Bay, Gandy added, but due to the loss of traps and cages during the storm there were gaps in the available data.
“We were unable to ascertain the magnitude of the spat settlement event,” Gandy said.
“While seeing spat gave us hope, there are many factors that could reduce this population of young scallops.”
Those factors include low salinity in the water, predators, and harmful algae blooms.
Gandy added that researchers were “cautiously optimistic” early this year but had to wait until the adult population surveys.
And, come June and July, the adult population survey in St. Joseph Bay indicated the optimism had foundation.
“Sure enough, the conditions had been right for the spat to grow to adults and the resulting abundance is good,” Gandy said it what many locals and visitors would say is a vast understatement.
Gandy added that researchers are seeking answers to whether the larvae in the Bay following Michael were natural or the result of restoration efforts.
“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.
The St. Joseph Bay scallop season opens Aug. 16 and continues through Sept. 15.