Scientists release a million tiny scallops into Sarasota Bay

skennedy@bradenton.comNovember 22, 2012 

SARASOTA -- About a million scallop larvae were released Wednesday in hopes of re-establishing a healthy colony of shellfish in Sarasota Bay's sunlit seagrasses.

A coalition of groups joined forces to provide a biological booster shot to the bay, which has not harbored scallops in significant number for decades, said Jay Leverone, Ph.D., a staff scientist for one member of the coalition, the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.

In the next couple of months, another 20 million to 40 million more larvae are slated to be released into the bay, said Larry Stults, Ph.D., an attorney who is also president of coalition member Sarasota Bay Watch.

The portion of Sarasota Bay that adjoins Manatee County may also be seeded with scallop larvae as part of a regional effort from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor, perhaps with money from fines imposed on BP as a result of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Leverone said.

Wednesday's effort was the second this year; earlier this month, scientists released four million young scallops; and in December last year, they released another four million, Stults said.

They hope cleaner water and more lush seagrass habitat, coupled with better policing to prevent recreational overfishing, might have created conditions in which the scallop population can rebound.

However, even if seeding proves successful, it could still take 10 years before scallops return in anything like the numbers when they were a thriving part of the bay's ecosystem, Leverone cautioned. He said it was not clear exactly why they died out.

Should scallops ever take root in such quantities that commercial harvesting might be feasible, it would be "the ultimate sign of success," said Ed Chiles, owner and chief executive officer of The Chiles Group, an Anna Maria Island business including the Sandbar, Beachhouse and The Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub.

"I speak as a restaurateur," he said, noting he is unable to consistently buy enough high-quality fresh bay scallops locally to serve his customers; he buys ocean scallops, larger than bay scallops, from firms in the northeast, he said.

Chiles was among those who raised money for the seeding effort, along with Ted LaRoche, of the LaRoche Family Foundation and Micheal Coleman, of the Pine Avenue Restoration Project.

Each contributed one-third of the $3,500 cost of larvae, provided at a discounted price by businessman Curt Hemmel, owner of Bay Shellfish Co., of Terra Ceia.

Hemmel nurtured the tiny creatures to a late stage before they were released into the wild; bay scallops grow to adulthood in a year's time.

The boats carrying them left the dock of coalition partner Mote Marine Laboratory, of Sarasota; other members include the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, of St. Petersburg; and the Sarasota Yacht Club, partnering with Sarasota Bay Watch, who raised over $34,000 in community donations for a long-term restoration effort, Stults said.

"We are pleased to have the opportunity to provide the necessary funding for such a great project," said Chiles, who is also a member of the board of Sarasota Bay Watch. "A healthy bay is important to our businesses. If you think about it, you realize a healthy bay is important to everyone's business."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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