Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes
It was a perfect summer afternoon as we sped out into the Gulf of Mexico off of the coast of Crystal River in central west Florida's Citrus County. The water was flat, the sun warm, and the scallops were waiting. I've lived in the Sunshine State for more than 20 years, and this was my first time going scalloping—I couldn't wait to dive in.
During our ride offshore, I had a few questions about Florida's bay scallops for Captain John, who runs charters out of Plantation Adventure Center. First up, how can you tell if a scallop is male or female? I was a bit surprised when he answered that most are actually hermaphrodites, so they're both. When I asked about the local scallop population, John said that most bay scallops live only a year; they essentially spawn and then it's so long scallop.
The State of Bay Scallops
"Scallop restoration in Florida is a top priority," Emily Abellera, a public information specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), tells Southern Living. She adds that the Florida bay scallop commercial fishery began to decline in the 1960s due to numerous factors, and the commercial fishery was closed in 1994. Now, the only way to enjoy bay scallops is by harvesting them yourself; no commercial harvesting is permitted, and thus, no restaurants serve bay scallops harvested in the wild.
"Every year, FWC scallop biologists conduct surveys to estimate scallop population density along Florida's Gulf Coast after the season ends to help us understand how many scallops are available to spawn and produce new scallops for the next year," says Abellera. "To increase depleted scallop populations in some bays and reintroduce scallops in other suitable areas from which scallops have disappeared, FWC began a 10-year Bay Scallop Restoration Plan in 2016."
In an effort to preserve scallop populations, FWC designates scalloping seasons across Florida's Gulf of Mexico coastline. More on that in a bit.
Courtesy of Miles Saunders / Discover Crystal River Florida
When Captain John stopped at "our" spot, I looked around and saw boats as far as my eyes could see—a few close by, but not too close, and others that dotted the horizon. When I asked how many boats John thought were out with us and he estimated about 400 or 500, I gasped with surprise. I knew scalloping season was big in Florida, but had no idea just how big.
Once the motor stopped, one of our guides, Lucas, jumped into the Gulf and started searching for scallops while the other, Cory, explained how scallops camouflage themselves in the seagrass and on the sandy bottom. He also showed us how to hold our net bags to make it easier to access when we found scallops.
Then, it was time to jump in and learn by doing. I donned my mask and snorkel and hopped overboard into the warm water; it was just three to six feet deep, even as far offshore as we were. When Cory spotted a scallop nestled in the lush seagrass, he called us over and pointed it out. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but then I saw it. Diving down, I scooped it up and harvested my very first scallop.
For the next hour or so I floated above the beds of seagrass, all the while keeping my eyes peeled for scallops. Small plants growing from the sandy bottom known locally as pom-poms fooled me more than once into thinking they were scallops. But then I did spot a scallop, and then two, and then three, and all of a sudden I saw them here and there and everywhere.
Scalloping requires a lot of patience, and I found the entire experience quite cathartic: floating alone atop the water, completely disconnected (the boat was out of cell service) and listening to my breathing through the snorkel, watching silvery fish glinting amongst the same seagrass in which I, too, was seeking dinner.
Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes
At the end of our time in the water, our small group had our fill of scallops. FWC regulates that each person can harvest up to two gallons of scallops per outing, with a maximum of 10 gallons per boat (not including captains or guides) in Citrus County. In total we collected about three gallons, which was more than enough.
On our trip back to the Plantation Adventure Center's marina, Lucas cleaned about a dozen of our catch and prepared them ceviche-style with a squirt of lime juice and some seasoning—there's nothing like enjoying a scallop just moments from harvesting.
Back at the marina, we dropped the scallops off for shucking. Seven dollars per gallon was well-worth having someone who knows what they're doing do just that—shuck and clean the scallops.
My haul was then delivered to West 82⁰ Bar & Grill at Plantation On Crystal River so I could enjoy the preparation through the restaurant's You Catch We Cook menu offering. Served family-style two of four ways—fried, blackened, or in a lemon butter sauce or mushroom cream sauce—I feasted upon my catch served with rice and seasonal veggies.
The perfect end to my first time scalloping.
Courtesy of Susan B. Barnes
Scallop Season in Florida: Know Before You Go
Florida is the only state along the Gulf of Mexico that allows recreational harvesting of bay scallops.
A Florida saltwater fishing license is required to harvest bay scallops, unless with a licensed captain.
Open harvest scalloping is permitted during the following timeframes in these Florida counties, listed north to south. Visit MyFWC.com for updated information and harvesting limits .
Gulf: August 16 - September 24
Franklin: July 1 - September 24
Wakulla: July 1 - September 24
Taylor: July 1 - September 24
Dixie: June 15 - Labor Day
Levy: July 1 - September 24
Citrus: July 1 - September 24
Hernando: July 1 - September 24
Pasco: July 15 - 24