The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is seeking to put hard science to numbers and theory.
And as it does so, the agency’s research arm will continue a restoration project that began in 2016.
After a banner season in St. Joseph Bay, a bounty not seen in years by locals, the FWC Research Institute in St. Petersburg is still assessing the whys and hows behind a scallop population deemed absent in December exploding by July.
This was the first year the institute had scallop researchers on the ground in St. Joseph Bay during the season, using a combination of dockside sampling, aerial surveys and trailer counts to assess the season.
“We will analyze the data on scallop harvest in St. Joseph Bay once the season has ended,” said FWC biologist Jennifer Granneman of a season that was eight times as bountiful as just last year and ended this week.
Since 2016, the population traveled from collapsed to one of the highest densities in the state in recent recorded history.
How that came about is something the FWC is hoping to discover, being mindful that due to their one-year life span there are gaps in the knowledge of scallops.
Granneman noted the FWC has increased its scallop restoration efforts in St. Joseph Bay each year since 2016.
There are currently 17,400 scallops in restoration cages in the Bay.
“Placing scallops in cages protects them from predation and increases the fertilization success of scallops,” Granneman said.
Scallops reproduce in the water column; proximity is everything.
“We are currently working on a genetic analysis of scallops from St. Joseph Bay to investigate the potential impacts of our restoration efforts on scallops in the bay,” Granneman added.
She noted, however, a number of additional potential factors that could have been in play this season.
Michael’s Cut, the breach of the beach at Eagle Harbor in the peninsula state park which for months connected Bay to Gulf, may have allowed “exogenous scallop larval supply to enter the bay,” Granneman said.
Therefore, the DNA testing to determine the source of the adult scallop population this year in St. Joseph Bay.
“Additionally, the simultaneous impact of a harmful algal bloom and Hurricane Michael may have contributed to ‘stress-spawning’ of the scallops, resulting in an increase in scallop settlement in the bay,” Granneman said.
The FWC, she said, had not yet performed testing on one prominent local theory: that saltwater from Michael’s Cut increased salinity in the bay to a positive degree for scallops.
“We are in the process of creating a model to examine how environmental drivers (such as salinity) have affected historical scallop densities across the state,” Granneman said.
“We will be including St. Joseph Bay in his analysis. We have not conducted any analyses yet on how salinity may have impacted scallop densities in St. Joseph Bay.”
Meanwhile, restoration efforts will continue into 2020.
Next year, the FWC plans to up the effort.
In addition to placing scallops in restoration cages in St. Joseph Bay, as has been the case since 2016, researchers will also free-plant hatchery-produced juvenile scallops in the bay and release competent larvae into the bay to enhance restoration efforts.