As I write this, we are in the middle of our 2023 Scallop Search, an event we do each year to assess whether the scallops in Pensacola Bay are trying to make a comeback on their own. Each year I am amazed at how popular this little mollusk is. On the day I am writing, I will be working with a marine science class from the University of Southern Mississippi driving over from Ocean Springs. This past weekend I worked with two families who trailered their boat from Enterprise Alabama to participate. Those on the eastern end of the panhandle are well aware of the popularity of this creature. Folks from all over the southeast travel there to go scalloping. Many of the locals in my area, when I am training them how to do a scallop search, tell me that they head east and go scalloping every year. Some even have condos for that week and it is a large part of their annual vacation plans. And many of the locals here would love to see them return to Pensacola Bay.
This is a creature that draws a lot of attention. But most know very little about it. They know it has small eyes and can swim – actually… I have recently found that not everyone knows they can swim. We know they like grassbeds and they can be harvested in the summer. They may have done this long enough to know the prime spots within the grassbeds to search for them – their “sweet spots”. But not much more.
So… let’s meet the bay scallop.
Its scientific name is Argopecten irradians. It is a mollusk in the class Bivalvia and the family Pectinidae. There are numerous species, and the group is found all over the world. The greatest variety of them are from the Indo-Pacific region, and in each case, they are a popular seafood. Most can swim, though erratically – they are not Michael Phelps – and they use this ability to avoid predators such as starfish, which they can see with the set of simple eyes.
There are five subspecies of A. irradians. A. irradians irradians, known as the bay scallop, or Atlantic Bay scallop (and from here is just “the scallop”) is our local variety. It is found from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico. They begin life as a microscopic egg produced during the mass spawning of the hermaphroditic parents (hermaphroditic meaning each parent can produce sperm and egg). The timing of the release of gametes is triggered by warming water and usually occurs in the late summer/early fall. This early egg stage sinks to the bottom where it remains for a few weeks before hatching.
The hatched larva remain microscopic, are transparent, resemble the parents, and are called spat. The spat become part of the plankton in local estuaries but eventually return to the grass in what is called “spatfall” where they attached to the seagrasses using byssal threads. They continue to grow, eventually release from the grass, and become the scallops we all know and love. Many species of scallops can live over 20 years, but our local one only lives for one.
As most know, adult scallops have two shells (bivalves) connected at the hinge on the dorsal side of the animal. Though they do add weight to the shell, a disadvantage for a swimmer, the “ribs” provide a sturdier shell. The two shells are connected by a single, large adductor muscle, which is used to open and close the valves during swimming. It is this adductor muscle we eat when consuming scallops.
Like all bivalves, scallops are filter feeders but unlike most bivalves they lack siphons to draw water in and out of the digestive tract. Rather they lie with their valves slightly gaped and allow water to pass over them. Plankton is collected by a mucous layer and then moved to the gut by cilia (small hair-like structures) where it is digested.
Like all bivalves, scallops lack a brain as we know it but rather function using a series of ganglia (groups of nerve cells) connected to a nerve ring. These ganglia can control movement of the muscle, gills, eyes, and are connected to a statocyst, which tells the scallop how it is oriented in the water column.
There are numerous eyes aligned along the edge of each valve that can detect movement and shadows. It is believed that they use their eyes to detect potential predators and possibly initiate the swimming behavior they are famous for.
Living only one year, and reaching maximum size in late summer during spawning, scallop harvesting is regulated to that time of year in Florida. Once common from Pensacola to Miami, they are now only found in large numbers in the Big Bend region. Due to the loss of scallops in other areas, many visit the Big Bend each year to go scalloping, putting heavy harvest pressure on those stocks. There have been efforts to try and enhance the existing populations as well as restore historic ones. Here in Pensacola Bay, Florida Sea Grant works with volunteers to monitor the water quality and seagrasses, as well as assess how the few existing scallops are doing.
For more information on panhandle scallops, contact your local Sea Grant Agent at the county extension office.
Morrison Springs in Walton County is a natural spring ideal for paddling, snorkeling, and diving. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extensio
There is just SO much water in Florida. Besides the tremendous amount of rain and 1,350 miles of coastline and beachfront, there are endless bays, bayous, creeks, rivers, and streams. In this state, it is extraordinarily difficult to live more than a few miles from a body of water. Among the the coolest (literally) types of water bodies in Florida, though, are our springs. Like brilliant gemstones, the state’s 700+ springs dot the Florida landscape like a strand of sapphires.
While we have springs bubbling up all over northwest Florida in areas where the underground water table meets the surface, larger springs are more common as you move east and south. Some parts of north Florida and most of the peninsula are built on a limestone platform, known by the geological term “karst.” Limestone is composed of calcium carbonate, which has a porous and easily degradable chemical structure. When this barrier is breached, it allows the cold groundwater an opening directly to the surface water—hence a spring. (Fun fact—there are surface water streams that actually disappear into a spring—these are called swallets, operating as the reverse version of a spring!)
The striking blue-green water in Three Sisters Spring is only accessible by kayak or swimming. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
A few of the largest springs in northwest Florida are Vortex, Ponce de Leon, and Morrison Springs, found in Holmes and Walton County. Vortex is a privately operated water park and scuba diving/training facility. It is where the red and white “diver down” flag was invented and has a complex underwater cavern system. Ponce de Leon and Morrison Springs are state and county-run parks with a more natural feel, surrounded by woods and basic infrastructure for access. Morrison will especially wow visitors with its tremendous turquoise coloring.
Crystal clear water in Morrison Springs. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Before a meeting in Crystal River last week, I paddled and snorkeled through the famous Three Sisters Spring. As part of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, it is a popular but highly protected area. Three Sisters is well-known as a manatee gathering place, especially in winter, but during my visit was mostly unoccupied. The color was striking, though. Why do so many of these springs have such brilliant blue and turquoise coloring? The phenomenon is essentially the same as the blue-green Gulf waters in the Panhandle. The reflection of the sky on a sunny day with the backdrop of that pure white sand causes the water to reflect a color that inspired the nickname “The Emerald Coast.” In springs, the white calcium carbonate in limestone breaks down into tiny crystals, mixing with the water and reflecting the vivid shades of blue.
Alexander Springs Creek in Ocala National Forest is overrun with algae. Photo credit: Matt Cohen, UF IFAS
Besides their beauty, clarity, recreational, and wildlife value, springs pump 8 billion gallons of fresh water a day of into Florida ecosystems. Seagrass meadows in many of these springs are lush. Because they are literal windows into the underground aquifer, they are extremely vulnerable to pollution. While many springs have been protected for decades, others were seen as places to dump trash and make it “disappear.” Many have been affected by urban stormwater and agricultural pollution, losing their clarity, reducing dissolved oxygen levels, and prompting massive cleanup and buffer protection zones.
On one of these hot summer days in Florida, take the time to visit our incredible springs. While it may not be the literal “Fountain of Youth,” swimming in a spring is a unique and invigorating experience, and a beautiful way to get off the beaten path. A comprehensive guide to Florida springs, research, and statewide protection initiatives can be found at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s springs website.
By Tory Moore, UF/IFAS Communications & Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County
As boaters across the state take to Florida’s coast to scallop, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agents ask enthusiasts to keep these tips in mind for a safe, fun and sustainable trip.
Scallops are sensitive to environmental changes and, due to their relatively short lifespan, local bay scallop populations are susceptible to periodic collapses. To enjoy recreational scalloping for years to come, it is important that safety and conservation stay top of mind.
Remember, you are not alone out on the water. Other boaters and scallopers, manatees, sea grasses and other wildlife surround you.
In 2020, the leading cause of boating accidents was motorists failing to pay attention to surroundings according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boating accident report. Florida leads the nation in the number of registered vessels, and it is important for boaters to be aware of others around them to prevent accident, injury or death.
While in the water, be sure to display a dive flag to grab the attention of boaters passing by.
“We often see folks not using diver down flags,” said Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension and Florida Sea Grant agent said. “Be safe on the water and be sure to place your diver down flag in your scalloping area so boaters know you are there.”
When boating in shallow areas, watch out for seagrass beds. Wildlife, including scallops, depend on seagrass and protecting the grasses from boat anchors and propellers helps to keep populations healthy. Just a couple of minutes of negligence by a boater can cause a decade of impacts to sea grass. Propellor and anchor scars are preventable by following these simple best practices.
“Seagrass scarring is a big issue in Florida,” Bodrey said. “It takes a long time for seagrass to recover from such an injury. Remember, seagrass is a scallop’s best friend. Seagrass provides a health habitat for scallops by providing oxygen and a camouflage from predators.”
To support future scallop populations, return scallops smaller than 1 1/2 inches. Smaller scallops likely have not spawned yet and since their life span is roughly one year, it’s important that each scallop has the opportunity to contribute to the scallop population.
Consider only collecting what you plan to eat. While many people strive to “limit out,” be realistic about how much you will eat and how much you may or may not want to shuck.
Remember, scallop seasons differ by county. Limits are season – and location – specific. Harvesting scallops requires a current Florida recreational saltwater fishing license unless you are on a chartered trip.
It’s important to be aware of the regulations for the area you are scalloping and follow them. Not only are these regulations law, but they are also important for keeping scallop populations healthy for your future enjoyment.
“Many bays in Florida are struggling to maintain a healthy scallop population,” said Bodrey. “Follow all FWC rules and regulations so that we have a recreational scallop harvest season for years to come.”
Cleaning and cooking scallops
On the boat
Upon collection, place scallops on a wet towel on top of ice in a cooler. This prevents spoilage and water from entering their shells. Drain your cooler frequently to keep bacteria growth at a minimum.
Back on land
You will want to shuck your scallops the same day they are caught. If you shuck your scallops on shore, be sure to dispose of the shells or soft tissues properly. Do not dispose of them in high-traffic water areas near shore or in swimming areas.
Before shucking, make sure to wash your hands and shucking utensils.
Remove any traces of the surrounding tissue as possible, you want to only eat the circular white muscle meat. Scallop meat should be stored in the refrigerator and cooked or frozen within 24 hours of catching and shucking. Frozen scallop meat is best enjoyed up to three months.
Summertime in North Florida is an awesome time of year if you like to harvest and prepare your own seafood from local waters. In my area, around Wakulla and Franklin County, scallop season runs from July 1 – September 24. In St. Joseph Bay, another popular scalloping area in Gulf County, the season spans from August 14 – September 24. Therefore, in the spirit of “sharing the love,” here is my recipe for a day with family and friends that you will never forget and will eagerly anticipate repeating each year as summertime approaches.
Two parts: “local knowledge” – Study boating access points and local water depths/tides – Talk to locals about the best places to find scallops – Ask others for their favorite scallop recipes
One part: “the right gear” – Masks, snorkels and mesh bags are a must – Dive fins and small dip nets are helpful – Dive flag on display is required when swimming – Bring a bucket for measuring your catch
One part: “a little luck” – Sunny days and clear water are best for seeing scallops down in the seagrasses – Winds below 10 knots make boating and snorkeling more pleasant
A healthy pinch: of “enthusiasm,” with a helping attitude for first-timers – From the first one you spot nestled down in the seagrass, to the last one of the day, you will never tire of the thrill – Reassure first-timers that the seagrass is a fascinating environment, not a scary place, by showing them its wonders (i.e. sea stars, burrfish, spider crabs, and much, much more) – Teach proper shucking technique with a curved blade to avoid wasted meat
Yield: A full day of memories and an incredible culinary experience. – A limit of scallops is two gallons (in the shell) per person currently, with no more than 10 gal per boat. Ten gallons of scallops in the shell will allow you to fix a feast of scallops, prepared several ways. We like to marinate some in Italian dressing then grill on skewers, sauté a batch with garlic and butter, and deep fry some with a light breading. Throw in a fresh batch of cole slaw, some hush puppies and laughter around the table to top it off and your day will have been a true success. Oh, I will also say that you will be thoroughly exhausted and will probably get one of your best nights of sleep since last summer’s scallop season.
For some of us this is an annual gathering no different that Thanksgiving or Christmas. The family all knows the gig – “Kids get your things together – we’re heading to St. Joe!”
Scallopers heading out for a day of fun. Photo: Molly O’Connor
For others, it is something we do when we can – the stars all align with work and we decide “Hey, Let’s go scalloping!”
For some, it is a new thing we want to get involved in. It is a fun family activity. Loading up the car with your snorkel gear, maybe choose camping instead of a hotel, maybe just go over for the day – (note: I do not recommend this option – I have done this and it is a LONG day – you will enjoy it more if you stick around and cook your scallops over there).
For those who have NO idea what we are talking about – we are talking about that great Florida family activity of SCALLOPING.
So, what is scalloping you say?
I guess you know by now that it is fun – and it is. Scallops are small bivalves that live in the seagrass beds. You just have to have a mask and snorkel to go find them – and you don’t have to go very deep. They lay right on top of the grass, their little blue eyes staring at you, and you pick them up. OH! they can swim! – not very well, but they can swim! The fun part is that it is a great day on the water, you get to see all sorts of other cool marine life while hunting, everyone is playing and splashing, and the day ends with a really seafood meal – maybe around a campfire. Good times for sure.
Bay Scallop Argopecten irradians http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/
You may ask – “why do I have to go all the way to Port St. Joe to do this?”
And that would be a good question.
The bay scallop was once found along the entire Gulf coast, and even on part of the east coast, of Florida. There was a commercial fishery for the guy. But, overharvesting, poor water quality, and habitat loss, caused a decline. First, the commercial harvest was stopped. Then areas of the coast, including the Pensacola Bay area, were closed to recreational harvesting. Today there are a few regions in the Big Bend area where you can still scallop. Each region has its own “season” and the closest to us is Port St. Joe in Gulf County. This region extends from Mexico Beach to St. Vincent Island. It opens August 16 and closes September 24.
Because it is a managed recreational fishery now – there are some rules.
– Each person is allowed 2 gallons of whole scallop, or 1 pint cleaned.
– Each boat (if you take a boat) is allowed 10 gallons whole, or ½ gallon cleaned.
– Snorkelers are to have a dive flag and be within 100 feet of it at all times.
– A fishing license is required to harvest unless (a) you are exempt from having to have one (see FWC’s website on who is exempt), (b) you are wading – your feet never leave the bottom.
To clean them you only need a knife or flathead screwdriver to pry open the shell. The adductor that opens and closes the shell is the part you eat. Remove the viscera from around it, keep it cold, and cook when you are done. Fried, broiled in butter, there are numerous ways to do this.
It really is a lot of fun, and they are really good to eat.
Prepared properly: One of the finest meals you will ever have.
They say that dreams don’t work unless you take action. In the case of some Walton County Florida dreamers, their actions have transpired into the first Underwater Museum of Art (UMA) installation in the United States. In 2017, the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and South Walton Artificial Reef Association (SWARA) partnered to solicit sculpture designs for permanent exhibit in a one-acre patch of sand approximately .7-miles from the shore of Grayton Beach State Park at a depth of 50-60 feet. The Museum gained immediate notoriety and has recently named by TIME Magazine as one of 100 “World’s Greatest Places.” It has also been featured in online and print publications including National Geographic, Lonely Planet, Travel & Leisure, Newsweek, The New York Times, and more.
Seven designs were selected for the initial installation in summer of 2018 including: “Propeller in Motion” by Marek Anthony, “Self Portrait” by Justin Gaffrey, “The Grayt Pineapple” by Rachel Herring, “JYC’s Dream” by Kevin Reilly in collaboration with students from South Walton Montessori School, “SWARA Skull” by Vince Tatum, “Concrete Rope Reef Spheres” by Evelyn Tickle, and “Anamorphous Octopus” by Allison Wickey. Proposals for a second installation in the summer of 2019 are currently being evaluated.
The sculptures themselves are important not only for their artistic value, but also serve as a boon to eco-tourism in the area. While too deep for snorkeling, except perhaps on the clearest of days, the UMA is easily accessible by SCUBA divers. The sculptures are set in concrete and contain no plastics or toxic materials. They are specifically designed to become living reefs, attracting encrusting sea life like corals, sponges and oysters as well large numbers and varieties of fish, turtles and dolphins. This fulfills SWARA’s mission of “creating marine habitat and expanding fishery populations while providing enhanced creative, cultural, economic and educational opportunities for the benefit, education and enjoyment of residents, students and visitors in South Walton.”
The UMA is a diver’s dream and is in close proximity to other Walton County artificial reefs. There are currently four near-shore snorkel reefs available for snorkeling and nine reefs within one mile of the shore in approximately 50-60 feet of water for additional SCUBA opportunities. All reefs are public and free of charge for all visitors with coordinates available on the SWARA website (https://swarareefs.org/). Several SCUBA businesses in the area offer excursions to UMA and the other reefs of Walton County.