Someone once called scallop diving an Easter egg hunt underwater.
It's actually that much fun, especially for kids. And on Saturday, families in the Tampa area will have a chance to go diving for these blue-eyed swimming shellfish and at the same time contribute to conservation knowledge and species restoration.
Tampa Bay Watch has been conducting the annual count since 1993. Numbers were climbing steadily upward thanks to improving water quality, until the red tide of 2005-06 and the cold snap of 2010.
"They were doing really well, but those two events knocked them back quite a bit," said Peter Clark, president and founder of Tampa Bay Watch. "They're starting to build back pretty rapidly, though. Based on some early observations, I think we're going to see a lot of them this year."
As long as water clarity continues to improve and more turtle grass spreads across the bay, scallops are likely to continue their increase, Clark said.
The Great Bay Scallop Search is an effort by Tampa Bay Watch to quantify the return of the shellfish, which are sort of the canary in the mine as far as habitat is concerned. Where water quality is good, scallops thrive. Where it's poor, they quickly die out – as they had for decades prior to the cleanup of Tampa Bay beginning some 30 years ago.
During the Scallop Search, divers fan out in various clear, grassy areas of lower Tampa Bay and swim 50-meter transects along weighted lines. They count how many scallops they see within a meter either side of the line, then progress to the next transect. With almost 150 divers in the water, the effort allows an accurate survey of the research area, and scientists can compare the year-to-year numbers to get an idea of whether the population is going up or down.
Since the scallops are not harvested, no fishing license is required. Regardless, Tampa Bay is not a legal area for scallop harvest in any case. The open waters begin north and west of the Pasco/Hernando county line, and the open season continues to Sept. 24 there.
The maximum count in the survey area was 674, reached in 2009. It's been down since the freeze the next winter, but a series of warm winters and an absence of red tide bodes well for the species and this year's count. Also, sea grass meadows are on the increase in much of Tampa Bay, with some 32,900 acres now spreading across the shallows – more than at any time since the 1950s, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Sea grasses grow in progressively deeper water as the clarity improves.
Scallops are short-lived, surviving only 12 to 18 months, Clark said. Still, each female releases millions of eggs and, in good habitat, many survive, so the numbers can climb rapidly.
Unlike most shellfish, adult scallops never anchor to the bottom – they are able to swim, a little, by clapping their shells together. Though their migrations are limited to traveling with the tide flows, they do move around considerably. Their fluttering swimming motion, sort of like underwater butterflies, seems to delight children.
Volunteers both with and without boats are needed to make the survey a success, Clark said. They'll need about 45 seaworthy boats capable of operating in shallow water and up to 180 volunteer divers.
The dive starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at Fort DeSoto Park in Tierra Verde and lasts until about noon. The dives typically take place in 2 to 6 feet of water. For more information, or to sign up, call Tampa Bay Watch at (727) 867-8166.
Visit the Bay Watch website at www.tampabaywatch.org for details on Tampa Bay Watch conservation programs.