By Elaine Allen-Emrich
Sun Staff Writer
PLACIDA — Zero is a number, Betty Staugler reminded volunteers Saturday during the annual Great Bay Scallop & Hard Clam Search.
While dark clouds surrounded Placida, about 110 volunteers of all ages loaded into dozens of kayaks and boats at Cape Haze Marina for the event.
“I needed about 150 volunteers so I wasn’t disappointed,” said Staugler, Charlotte County extension agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program. “What’s nice is I have volunteers who started out as snorkelers without a boat who kept coming back and are now partnered with boat captains. I also have snorkelers who aged out of being in the water and now help on land giving out T-shirts, lunch and collecting data and equipment. It’s a great citizen-science based partnership with the Charlotte County extension and the University of Florida IFAS Extension Charlotte County.”
The Great Bay Scallop Search provided a snapshot of adult bay scallop populations in the last 11 years in Charlotte County waters. This is the first year clams are added to the survey. Participants are also asked to identify and report the type of sea grass, clams and scallops that are spotted. Each team was assigned a search location. The volunteers snorkel each side of the line while pushing a one-meter PVC pole through the seagrass looking for bay scallops.
As boats came in, Staugler learned bay scallops weren’t seen in the waters before lightning and rain shut down the search. There were reports of half scallops and several clams.
“This is my first year helping,” said Englewood resident Tom Ray. “I only found a half of a scallop shell and a clot of clam shells and a couple of clams. I did the best I could but it was really tough to see out there.”
Bay scallops require good water quality during the 12 to 18 months they begin spawning late in the summer. In this region, they have diminished since the 1960s and 1970s potentially due to reasons including overfishing and water quality, Staugler said.
“Usually the volunteers are able to see at least one out in the water,” Staugler said. “We are always excited if we find one scallop. I have to remind volunteers that zero is a number. So if they didn’t spot any, it’s still part of the data needed to report to our (statewide) working group. Every year volunteer efforts contribute to the much-needed information about this important species. These results demonstrate why it is important to not get hung up on a single count but rather to take a comprehensive look at the data across time.”
Each year, groups from Charlotte County, Pine Island, Sarasota, Tampa and Escambia County conduct scallop surveys. The data is shared through the state’s working group to see if the scallop population is replenishing in these areas.
“I would say last year’s red tide did have a great impact on scallops,” she said. “I’d say red tide took out the entire year’s class of scallops. Bay scallops, as many know, are often referred to as the canary in the coal mine because they are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality and seagrass health.”
Staugler said clams live much longer and are more resilient to red tide.
“We are now collecting data on clams because they are shell fish and are harvested and consumed,” she said. “There’s been talks about Charlotte County becoming involved in restoring the clam population. We are trying to get something going.”
For more information about upcoming citizen science volunteer opportunities, email email@example.com or call 941-764-4346.