Written by Jennie LaForge, Registrar and Collections Specialist at Florida Maritime Museum
Bay scallops (Agropecten irradians) live surprisingly active lives for bivalve mollusks. Unlike clams, which stay buried in the sand, scallops move freely around the ocean floor. With 20 eyes around the edges of their shells, they can easily detect potential predators and take quick evasive action. The scallop has a strong adductor muscle between its shells. When this muscle contracts, water shoots out of the shell and propels the scallop away.
The bay scallops found in the Florida Gulf waters grow up to 3 inches and live for about one year. Their primary habitat is seagrass beds in water depths of 4-8 feet. Bay scallops are broadcast spawners, meaning they release reproductive cells to be fertilized externally. Scallop populations dwell in close proximity to aid in spawning, which usually occurs in the fall in Florida when the temperature drops.
In recent decades, bay scallop populations in the Gulf have decreased dramatically. Habitat loss, deteriorating water quality, and other environmental conditions are the primary factors that have played a role in their decline. The seagrass beds that serve as habitat for the bay scallops have suffered great losses. In Tampa Bay, about 80% of seagrass beds have been lost to dredge-and-fill operations, causeway construction, and human population growth.
Bay scallops require high water salinity, which can be reduced after storms or hurricanes, affecting their ability to reproduce. Red tide is known to negatively affect bay scallop populations as well. As populations are diminished, scallops become incapable of producing enough larvae to sustain the spawning process and their numbers are decreased further.
Before the slump in population, there was a long history of bay scallop harvest in Florida, dating to at least 900 AD. Commercial fisheries peaked in production between the 1920s and 1940s. By the 1970s, scallop populations were on the decline, but it wasn’t until 1985 that the first regulations were introduced to help prevent overfishing. An annual statewide closed season was established, with limits on the amount of scallops that could be taken in. These restrictions were tightened in 1994, when commercial harvest and sale of Florida bay scallops was banned completely. Today, only recreational bay scallop harvest is permitted during a set season.
Efforts are being made to restore the bay scallop population in Florida. The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute began a 10-year project in 2016 to help bay scallops reach self-sustaining levels along the Florida Panhandle. The project involves collecting adult scallops and spawning them under controlled, ideal conditions in hatcheries. The larvae are then released into areas that scientists have determined need population restoration.
Locally, bay scallop harvest has its place in the history of Cortez. While fishing was generally an occupation for the men, the women of Cortez participated in summer scalloping seasons until the 1970s. Using scallop boxes - wooden boxes with clear glass bottoms - the women would search waist-deep waters for the shellfish. They spent hours filling washtubs before returning to shore to shuck and clean the scallops. The meat was packed in quart jars and sold to fish markets and restaurants.
During the Great Depression, scallops became a staple of Cortez cuisine and the local economy. The residents of the village ate fish and scallops daily and traded them to local farmers for “taters and maters”. In the words of Cortez fishermen, Charlie Guthrie (1895-1985) about this time period:
“Now, I'll tell you, the years of depression, there wasn't nobody here on the relief…Tell you why. There's good a food as it is here in the bay, scallops. You ever eat scallop? There's just scallops right down yonder. A man get a tubful of them scallops.”
Fishermen in Cortez today can no longer collect scallops by the tubful on Sarasota Bay. The decreased bay scallop populations and harvest regulations preclude this. The tradition will live on, however, in the histories of communities like Cortez.
Arnold, William S. "The bay scallop, Argopecten irradians, in Florida coastal waters." Marine Fisheries Review, vol. 71, no. 3, 2009.
“Bay Scallops.” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, https://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/mollusc/bay-scallops/. Accessed 19 May 2020.
“Bay Scallops in Florida Seagrass Beds.” Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, https://marinelab.fsu.edu/archive/virtual-classroom/bay-scallops-in-florida-seagrass-beds/. Accessed 21 May 2020.
Green, Ben. Finest Kind: A Celebration of a Florida Fishing Village. Florida Historical Society Press, 1985.
Green, Mary Fulford. “Cortez History” interview. 18 November 1987.