If a new volunteer-driven restoration program goes well, it could lead to longer seasons in Gulf County.

PORT ST. JOE — Scallops in the St. Joe Bay are showing signs of recovery based on anecdotal evidence from the short Gulf County season this year.

“We’re still in recovery, but we’re much improved over last year,” said Captain Phil Cox, who led several guided trips. “They were thick enough to keep people interested.”

Thick enough to keep scallopers interested is a big improvement over the 2016 season, when the devastating effects of a red tide shortened the season and made scallops hard to find. And while the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) doesn't yet have hard data about this year's recreational harvest, they also believe the situation has improved.

“We’ve had pretty consistent comments … the season went well,” FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said. “Several people told us they met their bag limit.”

That’s not to say this year’s season didn’t have its own set of problems. A rare algae bloom, called pseudo-nitzschia, forced FWC to delay the start of the season for months. The algae, while not harmful to the scallops, can make them unsafe for consumption.

As a result, the season didn’t started late, Sept. 25, and it lasted only two weeks. The short and late season likely led to fewer people on the water searching for scallops, but it did have a few perks. For one, they were huge.

“The size was excellent,” Cox said.

It also eased harvest pressure on the recovering population. Cox said scallops were still not quite as prolific as they had been in the past. It took effort to find them, he said as they were scattered across the bay, and there weren’t places where there were really loaded with scallops.

New efforts

Volunteers are needed to continue the recovery of scallops.

This spring, FWC will be launching a new “scallop sitting” program, asking people along St. Joseph and St. Andrews to hang cages of scallops off their private docks or boats to add more spawning scallops to the waterways. The goal is to add 100 volunteer-tended cages to the 50 cages FWC supports.

The program is part of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment grant to restore scallops throughout the Panhandle waterways. If it goes well, it could lead to longer seasons in Gulf County or even the return or a scallop season in Bay County.

“We are providing the scallops and the cages,” FWC scientist Jennifer Granneman said. “All we ask is that they clean them once a month.”

In cages, “fouling organisms” like oysters and sponges can attach to the scallops hindering their growth and spawning. To prevent that, they need to be scraped with an oyster knife once a month to clean them off, according to Granneman.

People will be asked to care for the oysters from April through December, almost a full life cycle. After that, Granneman said people should throw them back into the bay, not eat them.

The brood stock for the scallops will come from the St. Joseph Bay.

FWC doesn’t plan to distribute the scallops until April, and at that point they will have workshops. Any members of the community interested in participating in the restoration project should email BayScallops@MyFWC.com.