PENSACOLA, Fla. — The morning of Aug. 6, snorkelers began combing the waters of Big Lagoon, an inlet southwest of Pensacola, in search of scallops. The week before, another group had done the same at various points along the Santa Rosa Sound. However, neither was interested in harvesting the shellfish, a pastime now prohibited due to the decline in scallop populations off Florida’s Gulf Coast over the last few decades.
These snorkelers are volunteer citizen scientists in the Great Scallop Search, a program co-sponsored by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, Florida Sea Grant, the U.S. National Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
The volunteers’ task was to count and record the scallops they found on the sea floor. “This data will go to FWC and help officials understand the scallop population in the Pensacola Bay system,” said Rick O’Connor, Sea Grant agent with UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County and co-organizer of the program.
“Knowing how many scallops are there will inform any future efforts by FWC to reseed the area and try to bring the population back,” O’Connor said.
From 8 a.m. to noon, teams of snorkelers and data collectors each surveyed one nautical square mile of Big Lagoon, working systematically to document the number and size of the scallops they found in this predetermine zone, O’Connor explained. Last year, more than 100 people participated.
“Though volunteers won’t be taking any scallops home, the Great Scallop Search still provides a lot of the same recreational fun for people who enjoy scalloping in other parts of Florida,” said Chris Verlinde, Sea Grant agent with UF/IFAS Extension Santa Rosa County, who organized the program with O’Connor.
Though it’s uncertain whether scallops will ever make a comeback in the region, a recreational fishery would be an economic boon for coastal communities, Verlinde said.
In addition to scallops, volunteers also observed the amount of sea grass on the ocean floor. Sea grass is an important habitat for scallops and other marine life, O’Connor said. Volunteers also noted the number of horseshoe crabs and sea urchins, two species that have also declined in the region, he said.
Besides helping scientists collect data, the Great Scallop Search demonstrates how scientific research impacts natural resources, O’Connor said. “Many people are excited at the idea of scallops returning, but if we want them back, we have to collect this data and establish a baseline population,” he said.
By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, email@example.com
Sources: Rick O’Connor, 850-475-5230, firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Verlinde, 850-623-3868, email@example.com