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Searching for scallops: How they're used as a water quality indicator

Great Bay Scallop Search returns after being canceled last year.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Fort De Soto Park was packed for the annual Great Bay Scallop Search, and for good reason: Around 200 volunteers were energized after having to miss out on the search last year because of red tide fears.

“(We're) definitely very excited to have all these volunteers out here. It was a shame to miss it last year, and all the volunteers are very excited to get out there on the water,” said Eric Plage, an environmental specialist with Tampa Bay Watch.

The goal was not to find dinner.

“We are returning the scallops to the area from which we found them. We are not harvesting them and putting some garlic butter and some white wine and all that good stuff on it," Plage joked. Scallops are water filters. If the water is too contaminated or diluted, they cannot filter.  

"If they’re prevalent in an area, that means there’s good water quality there. If we can’t find any, that’s kind of a sign that the water needs improvement. That the water quality is a bit poor." Plage said.

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The annual search has been conducted nearly every year since 1993 to gauge the water quality in Tampa Bay.

“The scallops are the canary in the coal mine. The more you find, the better quality the water is,” explained returning volunteer Carol Marks.

Scallops only live about a year or two, painting a clear picture of what the water in the bay has been like during the past year. Volunteers are assigned specific areas, making the event as productive and informative as possible.

“This is one of those really important citizen science projects where Tampa Bay Watch can get 200 people with 40 boats to come out and participate and go, and they can cover a lot more space than their small staff actually can," said Rob Yordi the executive director of the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, which provides the finances for this annual event. 

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