DESTIN, Fla. (WKRG) — The Gulf Coast loves scallops, but where do they come from? On a scallop search in the Choctawhatchee Bay Friday, teams of snorkelers searched various seagrass beds searching for the mollusks.
The 12 volunteers made up of Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, Sea Grant with NOAA, the University of Florida and Okaloosa Tourism Development Council members came back with zero.
Researchers and citizen scientists conduct scallop searches once a year at the end of July and early August in Escambia County and Santa Rosa County. Okaloosa County held its first in 2022 since 2015.
Crews with Sea Grant in Escambia and Santa Rosa said in the last seven years only three scallops have been found.
“So a lot of we believe is that some of the scallop loss is due to overharvesting,” said Florida Sea Grant agent Laura Tiu. “The small populations that are out there are just harvested illegally and they’re not able to reproduce and make the bigger populations that we used to see.”
Longtime residents say just decades ago in Northwest Florida one could fill a five-gallon bucket with scallops in half an hour.
Since then scallops that are found along the coast are most common around Port Saint Joe near Panama City.
The volunteers Friday including a WKRG News 5 reporter met at Dewey Destin’s Harborside to learn how to identify different sea grasses and mollusks and train on how to find them. The teams went by boat provided by Luther’s through the Destin harbor and found different low-laying grass beds in the bay.
Volunteers marked 50-meter sections searching through the grass for scallops or scallop shells. Teams also documented data for the seagrass, percentage of grass to sand, and other creatures found.
The TDC said these locations were determined by CBA data as the most likely spots scallops can survive.
Sea Grant employees said scallops can live in water that is at least 20% salinity. Freshwater is not an option. The bay had a consistent rate of more than 20% at spots hit by the teams on Aug. 5.
Scallops thrive in different seagrass species, the most abundant being turtle and manatee grass. In Okaloosa County, the bay is covered in shoal seagrass.
Tiu said seagrass beds are the overall problem researchers are trying to tackle.
“As scientists were very concerned about the loss of seagrass beds in the Bay. This could be due to a lot of different factors. Water quality, boating, a lot of developments and construction,” said Tiu. “Scallops are one organism that are 100% reliant on seagrass beds and so when we come out to the seagrass, feds and we don’t see scallops. It’s kind of a Canary in the coal mine indicator that there’s a problem. There are other species that are also reliant on seagrass, manatees, and horseshoe crabs.”
Sea Grant agents said the best way to help their project is to report any scallops found in the area.
“We would love to know if you find a scallop. You can take a picture of it and mark the location and then contact your county extension office to report it. We have sea grant agents in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Walton. If you’re in Okaloosa, you can call the Walton office and just let us know.”