Published: July 2014 – Southern Boating
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
July brings with it a unique tradition for recreational boaters on Florida’s Big Bend on the Gulf Coast – bay scallop season. A run of sandy barrier islands along the northeastern Gulf of Mexico and a marshy estuarine system contribute to an ideal salinity and ecosystem for the tasty mollusks which is unique on the Gulf Coast. Highly susceptible to even minute environmental changes, the harvesting of bay scallops is strictly controlled and no commercial activities are allowed. The one exception is for recreational boaters and individuals who wade from shore with dip nets and this has led to a time honored cultural institution on this stretch of Florida’s coastline.
Midsummer brings out the snorkels, flippers and mesh bags as Floridians and tourists peruse the sandy seagrass beds just offshore of Florida’s beautiful Forgotten Coast between Port St. Joe and Tarpon Springs. “Diver down” flags pop up above tried and true secret scalloping spots and with scallops preferring depths of only 4-6 feet of water, it is a family friendly experience. Port St. Joe also holds an annual Scallop Festival which is held in August in this very old-school Florida town.
Bay scallops once had an extensive habitat throughout the state from Pensacola to West Palm Beach on the Atlantic Coast, but it is increasingly shrinking due to development pressures. Today isolated populations, but numerous enough to allow scalloping can be found in the waters around Port St. Joe, Crystal River, Steinhatchee and Homosassa on the Gulf Coast. Florida saltwater fishing licenses are required and scalloping charters can be found in many of the marinas. The 2014 season runs from July 1st to September 10th and the per-person limit is two gallons of in-the-shell scallops per person onboard, but no more than 10 gallons onboard any vessel. It is best to clean scallops almost immediately after harvesting and then the bag limits are one pint of meat per person and no more than 1/2 gallon per vessel.
After long afternoons swimming in the cooling Gulf waters, families and friends get together for scallop feasts on the beaches or back porches with most lightly breaded and seasoned and then flash fried. Similar to an oyster in that it is a mollusk, bay scallops are more muscular because of their ability to actually swim and their meat is lean and firm. They have a very delicate flavor and as such cooking methods should be light and gentle. More inventive dishes have been making the rounds in the past decades with scallops served in ceviche or lightly broiled and served in beautiful salads and even sliders. Many coastal restaurants will even prepare your fresh catch and simply charge a “corkage” fee for preparing your feast.
Scalloping is one of those unique institutions that harkens back to the Florida of the past and an ideal method to launch your boat and get your kids and friends out on the water – and then know that you have earned your dinner and that slight sunburn.