SARASOTA -- Scallop restoration efforts in Sarasota Bay got a boost Saturday, Dec. 14, when high schoolers, community volunteers and scientists gathered to prepare space for a new bay scallop nursery at Mote Marine Laboratory.
Scallops and other important species of shellfish in Florida have seriously declined due to changes such as habitat loss, pollution, dredge-and-fill operations, overharvesting and blooms of harmful algae known as red tides. To restore depleted populations in Sarasota Bay, Mote has teamed up with Sarasota Bay Watch, Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Sarasota County, Manatee County, local business leaders and most importantly, many volunteer “citizen scientists” to release hatchery-raised scallops into the Bay and monitor for signs of recovery.
Now, Mote is establishing a scallop nursery at its main campus on City Island, Sarasota, with the goal of having it fully operational by fall 2014. With the help of Mote’s broad-based partnership team, this nursery will raise small juvenile scallops to larger sizes, bolstering science-based and citizen-implemented restoration efforts in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
On Saturday, students and teachers from Riverview and Sarasota high schools, volunteers from Sarasota Bay Watch and Mote staff and interns gathered behind Mote’s main Lab building to help clear a space for the nursery. The high school students also enjoyed a short talk about scallops by a Mote scientist and a mini field trip to Mote’s dock to learn about the shellfish they were helping.
Mote interns Serina Sebilian and Kevin Burnette lifted bags and cages dangling in the water and pulled out a few of their residents — young scallops smaller than a fingernail. The high school students set aside scientific curiosity for a few moments of “Aww!” and “How cute!” before listening intently as Sebilian described some challenges of scallop restoration.
“At small sizes, the scallops may be easy prey for crabs and other animals,” Sebilian said. “We want to raise the scallops to larger sizes to give them a running start.”
A team from Mote Marine Laboratory, Sarasota Bay Watch, Riverview and Sarasota high schools gathers in the space they've cleared for an upcoming scallop nursery at Mote. (Credit: Rusty Chinnis Images)
Hosting a scallop nursery will help Mote scientists study the life cycles of scallops and adjust release strategies to increase the probability that these scallops will survive to adulthood. Scallops grow from tiny plankton to adults capable of spawning in one year.
“We still have a lot to learn about the life history of scallops,” said Jim Culter, manager of the Benthic Ecology Program at Mote, who is overseeing the scallop nursery project.
Scallops start their lives as drifting larvae, which become juveniles called spat that eventually settle and attach to sea grasses. It is likely that most spat die or are eaten by predators within weeks of settling. As they grow larger the survivors detach from seagrasses and spend their lives on the bottom.
“We need to do more research to decide what is the best stage for releasing shellfish,” Culter said. “For example, we want to know how large the scallops need to grow before certain types of crabs will no longer eat them. We also want to know how many juveniles need to be released in a given area for the scallops to successfully spawn and maintain the local population. Scallops release their eggs and sperm into the water, and to ensure fertilization, they must be relatively close to another scallop.
Culter said that a nursery at Mote brings benefits beyond research: “Mote is known for its informal science education programs, and we can bring in student interns and volunteers to learn about marine science while helping with the project.”
The project has already won a few fans.
“This is by far my favorite thing we’ve done for marine science class,” said Riverview student Molly Valtz, whose sister Grace added: “Me too.”
“I love what Mote does and I want to volunteer more here,” said classmate Vanessa Miller. “I think this is a great way to get started.”
“This project has really benefited the from great cooperation between scientists and citizens, like the students here from local high schools,” said Rusty Chinnis, Chairman of the Board at Sarasota Bay Watch, who was on hand to help along with the organization’s President, Dr. Larry Stults.
“By creating this nursery, we’re allowing for a lot of research on the scallops and for more scallops to get out into the Bay,” Stults said. “And we hope that what we accomplish here will be a model for other programs in Florida to follow.”
The scallop restoration efforts led by Mote, Sarasota Bay Watch and other community partners has already drawn attention in the international community.
Japanese scientists at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) are studying the partnership effort as part of a global study designed to find exemplary case studies of “residential research institutions” — those tied closely to their communities and positioned to exchange knowledge with local communities — working closely with grass-roots citizen groups to encourage bottom-up solutions to environmental problems.
The community partnership for scallop restoration is one of only 11 case studies around the world that are part of this international effort to find the best approaches for the transfer of knowledge for sustainable use of ecosystems at local, regional, national and global levels.
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