Eight million bay scallop larvae will be released Sunday in hopes of boosting a collapsed species in waters where they used to be plentiful.
The two seeding sites include one in Lemon Bay by Cedar Point Park and one in Gasparilla Sound south of Catfish Creek and north of Sandfly Key.
Florida Sea Grant agent Betty Staugler is conducting the exercise with help from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Charlotte County Extension, numerous volunteers, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Bay Shellfish Co. West Coast Inland Navigation District helped with $10,000 in project funding.
Florida Sea Grant agent Betty Staugler
"This release is the first of what will likely take many more to restore a bay scallop fishery that collapsed some 30 years ago due to water quality issues, loss of seagrass beds and overharvesting," said Staugler. "Today, water quality and seagrass conditions appear to have improved enough to again support these fragile creatures."
The Great Scallop Search conducted Aug. 4 north of the Tom Adams Bridge down to Boca Grande Pass and east to Turtle Bay found only 20 live scallops, down from 24 in 2011.
Since then, 12 Charlotte County volunteers have monitored at a commercial aquaculture firm where they could spawn in closely watched conditions.
"By spawning them in the hatchery and raising them to a stage where they are ready to settle out on the seagrass blades, we get them past the free-floating stage, which is their most vulnerable period," Staugler said.
The actual release will be anticlimactic, Staugler said. The millions of larvae fill only four 5-gallon buckets.
The Florida bay scallop is a bivalve mollusk that grows and lives in seagrass beds in shallow coastal water 4 to 10 feet deep. The extremely sensitive organisms depend upon large populations in large areas to ensure one red tide or one rainy year does not collapse the species.
Bay scallops live 12 to 18 months in shallow-water seagrass meadows. They prefer high-salinity waters and require good water quality.
Each fall adult bay scallops reproduce, sending millions of tiny eggs into the water. Fertilized eggs become floating larvae within 36 hours. After two weeks they become tiny spat and settle on seagrass blades, develop their shell and eventually drop into seagrass beds for protection the rest of their lives.
Bay scallops once could be found from Palm Beach to Pensacola, and supported recreational and commercial fisheries in Florida. Today, healthy populations are found only in selected locations along Big Bend, north of Weeki Wachee to Port St. Joe.
The bay scallop larval release is being coordinated with similar efforts in Southwest Florida through the National Estuary Programs, Mote Marine Laboratory, Charlotte and Sarasota County governments and Sarasota BayWatch.
"I'll keep doing it as long as I can find the money," Staugler said. "We spend $8,000 to $10,000 on a very intensive hatchery to keep animals alive since August in order for them to spawn."