MANATEE — Behold the scallop, a bivalve bellwether making a comeback in Sarasota Bay.
With the help of Mother Nature — including the absence of red tide, drought conditions that reduced runoff, more sensitive development along the coast, and the efforts of scientists — the blue-eyed mollusks are on the rebound.
Saturday morning, volunteers from Sarasota Bay Watch will be counting scallops from Cortez in the north to the Ringling Causeway Bridge in the south, said Rusty Chinnis, one of the organization’s founders.
In the first scallop search last year, volunteers counted about 900, with populations typically more robust at island passes where there is greater tidal flushing action, Chinnis said.
“We want to get all the stakeholders involved in the health of the bay, including restaurateurs, Realtors, developers, fishing guides and condo operators. We all have a huge stake in the health of the bay,” Chinnis said.
“We would be happy to have the same kind of census we had last year,” he said.
“This is an indicator species that will show you by their abundance the state of our waters. When I arrived in this area in 1980, there were no scallops.”
Local scallop populations were believed to have been wiped out by coastal dredging and construction and the dumping of sewage into the bay in the 1950s and ’60s.
While scallops are getting re-established in the bay, it continues to be illegal to harvest them.
Jay Leverone, senior environmental scientist for the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, has been involved with scallop restoration efforts since 1993, when he was on the staff of Mote Marine Institute.
He attributes the rebound to improvements in restoration methods and bay health.
Initially, scientists tried transplanting several thousand healthy adult scallops at a time from the Florida Panhandle, hoping they would reproduce.
Later, Bay Shellfish Co., a Terra Ceia hatchery, produced millions of scallop seeds, which were released hundreds of thousands at a time during several dozen releases in the past 10 years, Leverone said.
Much of the work to reestablish scallop populations has focused on northern Sarasota Bay, along the Manatee County shoreline.
Whether seeding or natural recruitment, where scallops migrate into Sarasota Bay from elsewhere, has been more effective in re-establishing the population is unknown, Leverone said.
“We haven’t had the money to work with a geneticist. That’s the next level of research,” Leverone said.
What’s undeniable, however, in scallop recovery is the thickness and health of sea grass in the bay and improved water quality, Leverone said.
Curt Hemmel, owner of Bay Shellfish Co., said he is working with a Tampa Bay estuary program grant through the Terra Ceia Village Association, which has put out 60 million scallop larvae in the past two months.
That project is focused on the lower Tampa Bay area.
“We have been doing bivalve work for 14 years. We have giant areas of habitat where the scallops have disappeared and now they are coming back,” Hemmel said.
As of Thursday, 153 volunteers with about 42 boats had signed on to take part in the scallop hunt, Chinnis said.
Those volunteers are asked to attend a captain’s meeting at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Sarasota Outboard Club on City Island. The search will begin afterward with volunteers snorkeling through scallop habitat.
The public is welcome to attend the post-search event at the Outboard Club from noon to 1 p.m.
For more information, call (941) 953-5333 or visit http://www.sarasotabay watch.org.