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Volunteers sought for annual Pine Island Sound Scallop Search

By Staff | Aug 9, 2017

Volunteer boat captains, and snorkelers, are being sought for the annual Pine Island Sound Scallop Search, which helps UF/IFAS Lee County Extension and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation collect useful data of the area’s bay scallop population.

The data collected with the scallop search, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation Marine Laboratory Director Eric Milbrandt said targets where they are consistently seeing adult individuals.

“It allows us to compare it with the other bays in Florida. The population is either high, or low and it fluctuates. It helps the state fishery managers understand how to set the limit for the Big Bend area. Maybe if there is really good high abundance statewide, they would increase the number you can collect. With fishery management you want to keep a number of individuals from being harvested, so they can spawn every year,” Milbrandt said.

Florida Sea Grant Agent Joy Hazell said the scallop search began many years ago in the Tampa area. She said historically the area has had a bay scallop fishery in Pine Island Sound, but unfortunately collapsed in the 1980’s due to the changes in water quality, reduction in sea grass beds and over fishing an area.

Over the past decade and a half, Pine Island Sound up to Tampa Bay has been closed, followed by a restoration of scallops.

Hazell said 16 years ago Tampa Bay began a project to monitor the comeback of the scallops, followed by Charlotte and Sarasota Counties nine years ago. This is the seventh year the search has been held in Pine Island Sound.

The past Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation lab director and Mark Thompson got the scallop search started with Hazell. Milbrandt said they wanted it to be quantitative and scientific, a citizen science effort.

“It’s a multi-prong project. We are using scallops as an indicator species. We use the same places and methodology every year, so we can compare every year,” Hazell said.

The annual Pine Island Sound Scallop Search, which is taking place Saturday, Aug. 26, has engaged local citizens directly in their environment.

“Engaging in science and understanding the process of science is not to get the answer you want,” Hazell said, adding that the information gathered from the search creates a story.

In the case of zero scallops found, she said it is still sharing information, data for the larger picture.

“This isn’t a negative to the project and how we think about scallops,” Hazell said. “We are trying to tell the story long term about what is happening in the bay and how bay scallops are doing. The last two years we haven’t had great numbers, but much more spread out. There are real positives to that too. A wider environment is able to sustain the scallops.”

Hazell said about 75 percent of her volunteers return year after year to provide a helping hand. A dedicated dozen have participated every single year.

Boat captains who would like to volunteer their time need to have a shallow-draft boat. Hazell said she usually has about 24 to 38 teams.

“There is about 24 good grids,” she said, adding that the other grids in the Sound historically have not had any scallops. “I assign each boat to a specific grid on Pine Island Sound.”

A grid is one kilometer square.

Registration for the event begins at 8 a.m. at Pineland Marina, 13921 Waterfront Drive, Bookelia. At 9 a.m. Hazell provides a short training session to teach the volunteers the correct procedure in order for information to be comparable.

The captains are given a packet that have the GPS coordinates and a 600 meter line that they deploy and swim. Milbrandt said the volunteers count scallops and measure their shell height before putting them back where they were found.

Typically the boats leave the marina by 9:15 a.m. to 9:20 a.m.

“They come back by 1 p.m. and we provide them with lunch and a T-shirt,” Hazell said for their help.

Hazell encourages families to come and volunteer because it’s a really interesting way to spend a day on Pine Island Sound.

Although individuals can bring their own set of snorkels if they desire, snorkels will also be assigned to each of the boats.

Volunteers with kayaks can also participate in the annual Pine Island Sound Scallop Search.

“We have spots where kayaks can go,” Hazell said.

To register, visit 2017pineislandscallopsearch.eventbrite.com, email Hazell at hazellje@leegove.com, or call her at (239) 707-1267.

“It’s been great for educating people and getting them out of their boats from fishing to snorkeling. They really see the habitat. They have to describe the grass and see all of the animals that are living there,” Milbrandt said.

Milbrandt said one of the first projects SCCF did in 2003, at the lab, was with a staff scientist who studied scallops in the Big Bend region of Florida. There the population of scallops are large enough where there is an open harvest every year.

“She came here, and Bill Arnold, who at the time was the state fishery biologist, wanted to expand their network of monitoring statewide,” he said of scallops.

Milbrandt said their staff scientist would go out and survey with the FWRI, the agency and state responsible for all of the fisheries. It was long known, he said, that the scallop fishery locally was decimated and the cause is still debatable.

“There are diversions of freshwater from the Everglades and the Caloosahatchee. The construction of the Sanibel Causeway also changed some of the ways water moves in Pine Island Sound. At the same time there was a large capture fishery and a lot of marine and invertebrates in particular were boom or bust. They could be very abundant one year and then they can almost be non existent the next year depending on the environmental conditions,” Milbrandt said. “They spawn in the water columns, larvae spend a lot of time in the water column and then they settle on sea grass.”

To survive, the bay scallops need sea grass areas.

In the 1990s, Milbrandt said they closed the fishery for scallops locally because there were not enough adults.

“We, with the state, were monitoring the adults and how many there were. We were also monitoring, and continue to every month from Pineland Marina to Tarpon Bay and a little bit in San Carlos Bay, spat settlement. So we deploy cinder blocks with a citrus bag and float in the sea grass areas. We collect those and the number of spat, which are little baby scallops that are settling on the bags,” Milbrandt said. “So, since 2003, we have a number of spat settlements in this area.”

The data has shown SCCF when the bay scallops are settling, which lets them know when they are spawning. He said in this part of Florida spawning is different from the rest of the state.

“We actually have two spawning periods per year. One in what’s typical for the state, May June, and then in this area there is a settlement event that occurs in November and December,” he said. “Based on their life cycle, they only live for about a year, or less. So what we think is there are an early spawning group and a late spawning group. A population that are more, less separate in times in terms of when they are reproducing.”

Milbrandt said the whole idea behind collecting all of this data about bay scallops is to someday possibly restore the population. One of those ways is through releasing larvae, which cost money and the SCCF lab has done in the past.

The other, is through working with Ralph Woodring, a bait shrimp operator, to help Tarpon Bay. Every April and May Woodring collects the scallops that he catches in a shrimp net, with a special SCCF permit, and puts them into a mesh bag. Milbrandt said those scallops are put into a cage in Tarpon Bay, so they can live their entire life cycle.

“They grow happily in the cage. They start off at 20 millimeters and grow to be 65 or 70 millimeters. They spend the whole summer growing and around this time of year they start to spawn and then they die,” he said of the filter feeders.

Milbrandt said they are ingraining some scallop larvae into Tarpon Bay because the cage is sort of enclosed.

“When we started off our efforts, about the same time we started the scallop search, we have seen an increase in the number that Ralph catches every year,” he said. “Maybe with some small efforts like that we can show that a larger investment in larval releases, or restoration, would be worthwhile.”

All of this data driven research is being done by SCCF because scallops depend on sea grass for their life history and are an important indicator for the overall quality of the seagrass habitat.

“If you have scallops you typically have a very stable forest,” Milbrandt said, adding that scallops filter and keep the water clear, so it’s not murky.