TIERRA VERDE — Just before the fleet of boats, kayaks and paddleboards fanned out over the still waters of Tampa Bay on Saturday morning, volunteers were reminded of their goal at the annual Great Bay Scallop Search.
“We are monitoring scallops. We’re not collecting scallops. We’re not having a cookout back here,” said Eric Plage, an environmental scientist with the non-profit Tampa Bay Watch.
It wouldn’t have been much of a feast for the more than 200 people who launched from the boat ramp at Fort De Soto Park.
With a yield of 109 after several hours of searching, each person would have had to split just one of the tiny shellfish, which embed themselves in comfy beds of pasta-like seagrass across the bay’s bottom.
That’s more than double what snorkelers found last August, but still way too few to declare a major comeback for the fragile species which need clean, clear water to thrive.
Harry Cunningham, a volunteer with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, grew up in a day when you still could put together a proper scallop dinner after spending the day in Pinellas County waters.
“I was born and raised here. I remember scallops being as far up as Piney Point on the other side of the [Sunshine Skyway] bridge. We used to go up there to scallop all the time,” said Cunningham, who lives in Gibsonton.
“I love being on the water and going scalloping, but of course now we have to go way up the coast.”
North was the direction of the scallops’ retreat that experts say began in the 1950s.
In subsequent decades, shoreline development and pollution muddied these once pristine waters, blocking the sun from reaching the grass beds that support scallops, oysters, clams and other marine life.
“Old-timers often tell us about taking wash basins and floating them behind themselves, so they could pick up scallops and throw them in the wash basin. They were that easy to find,” said Peter Clark, director of Tampa Bay Watch.
In the early 1980s, scalloping was popular in Anclote Anchorage in Tarpon Springs, but they later began to wane there, too, and today their epicenter is 150 miles up the coast in Steinhatchee.
Joe Gross, who takes his teenage son, Sam, out to search for scallops every year, used to hunt for them in Tarpon Springs.
“When I was Sam’s age, we used to go out and get a sizeable amount and come back and clean them and they were delicious,” said Gross, who lives in Land O’ Lakes. “I’m probably part of the reason they’re not here anymore.”
His expectations on Saturday were much more modest. “I hope he’ll get to see a live one in the bay,” Gross said of his son.
Scallops have made a comeback in Tarpon Springs and other spots, but their numbers seem to fluctuate in Tampa Bay, Clark said.
Groups like Tampa Bay Watch have seen great success in the past 20 years in cleaning up bay water and replanting seagrass beds. In theory, scallops should make a robust return in the improving conditions.
Some years, searchers have found upward of 600 or 700.
The trouble is it doesn’t take much to wipe them out. A particularly bad cold snap, a red tide, a hearty population one year of natural predators like stone crabs and their population quickly drops.
“It’s a numbers game,” Clark said.
When volunteers snorkel along a 100-meter line in a grass bed and find only one live scallop, its chances for spawning a big family are slim.
In the fall, when water temperatures changes, they emit millions of sperm and eggs, but if individual scallops are spaced too far away from each other, they won’t spawn in great enough volume to continuing growing in population.
Tampa Bay Watch this year is placing scallops in spawning cages off of docks at homes around the bay, hoping to drive the birthrate up to more sustainable levels.
“That’s why we haven’t hit the critical mass yet for them to sustain their population in the bay. Their numbers are so low, it’s difficult for them to reproduce effectively,” Clark said.
“The water quality is the best that it’s been since the ‘50s in the bay and they ought to be responding better than they have.”