Florida Travel: How to Go Scalloping in Florida: A Guide

By Lauren Tjaden

You can consider it an Easter egg hunt. Sunshine-State style.

Summertime on Florida’s Gulf coast arrives with the beloved tradition of scalloping, an underwater game of hide and seek that everybody in your gang can enjoy. This adventure involves laughter and getting soaked, searching for tasty mollusks with rows of bewitching blue eyes, and an incomparable Florida feast.

Here’s your guide for scalloping in Florida, including where and when to find these bivalves, need-to-know rules, and even eateries that will cook your catch for you.

Bivalves with Bling

Better known as ‘bay scallops,’ Argopecten irradians favor shallow, nearshore waters along Florida’s Gulf coast, from the northern reaches of Perdido Key all the way to the The Florida Keys. Locations where freshwater rivers stream into the ocean are where the scallops are thickest, as they need the right mix of saltwater and freshwater to survive.

Once plentiful on Florida’s west coast, scallops have disappeared in some areas. Today, Florida’s bay scallops occur in scattered, isolated populations, with the majority found from Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County to Port St. Joe in Gulf County. Hotspots include Steinhatchee, Homosassa and Crystal River.

Bay scallops have two shells (valves) joined by a hinge. The top shell is a dark, mottled color, while the lower shell is usually white.
Bay scallops can reach 3½ inches and live up to two years, but in Florida, they rarely grow larger than 3 inches or live more than one year. And, these bivalves have bling: multiple tiny, blue eyes line the outer rim of their shells to help detect movement and serve as a warning system.

Fun Fact: Bay scallops can swim—backwards — by opening and closing their shells to propel themselves away from danger.

 -Florida’s Adventure Coast

Scalloping, in Short

Further down in this article, you’ll find rules, licenses needed, locations, seasons by area and information about guides, but this is the short version of what your scalloping expedition will look like.

Most folks scallop from a boat using a mask, snorkel and fins. You’ll anchor, display your dive flag and snorkel over the beds, gathering scallops by hand or with a small dip net. A mesh bag to put your scallops in while you’re underwater is useful.

You’ll normally find bay scallops camouflaged among thick eel and turtle seagrass beds, usually in water from four to eight feet deep. They’re easiest to see in areas where the sandy bottom and the sea-grasses join.  You can locate them by their shape-- or by their rows of electric blue eyes… but don’t fall under their spell once you spot one!

Once you find a scallop, move quickly. Unlike their clam and oyster cousins, these mollusks can swim, squeezing their shells together to generate thrust that rockets them away from you, and he or she who hesitates may go home empty-handed. 

Remember to watch your fingers. Scallops may look innocent, but they have a strong adductor muscle that can snap their shells shut. When they pinch, it doesn't tickle.

Back on the boat, you should promptly place your scallops in a live well. If you don’t have a live well, put them on ice in a cooler—but take care to keep your catch separated from the melting ice water, as fresh water will kill them. Placing your scallops on a wet towel on top of the ice in your cooler can extend the amount of time they stay alive.

Scallop shucking is best left to the pros, but if you feel you must: Put the scallops on ice for a few minutes, which causes the mollusks to open slightly. Then with dark side of shell up, slide a knife into the opening. In one smooth stroke, separate the muscle, open the shell, scoop out and discard the surrounding membrane and remove the perfectly round scallop. It's an art, and a bargain at several dollars a pound. Especially after several messy and treacherous attempts on your own.

Please don’t discard your scallop shells in waters routinely used for recreational activities. They can create hazards for swimmers and damage seagrass habitat. You can discard your scallop shells in the trash or in larger bodies of water where they are more likely to disperse.

When it’s time to eat your catch, you’re getting a rare, delicate treat, as bay scallops aren’t allowed to be harvested commercially in Florida.

Fun Fact: Bay scallops have up to 200 tiny eyes along the edge of the mantle lining their shells, each one containing a mirror to focus light.

What to Bring

If you go scalloping with a charter, they may supply your snorkel gear and other supplies, but make sure to check before you go.

Personal equipment includes:

  • Snorkel gear, usually a mask, snorkel, and fins (or water shoes, if you’re wading)
  • A mesh bag and/or dip net to harvest scallops
  • Plenty of water
  • A hat and sunscreen (reef safe sunscreen lessens the damage to our seagrasses)
  • A wetsuit, if you tend to get cold
  • A sun suit or shirt
  • Gloves (optional)

Boating safety equipment should include life jackets for every person aboard, a throwable flotation, a whistle or air horn, and visual distress signals like flares. Make sure the latter aren’t wet or expired.

Remember a cooler with plenty of ice to keep your scallops chilly and safe to eat.

The Rules

Do you need a fishing license? What gear are you allowed to use? What are the limits for your catch? Here are need-to-know scalloping rules and regulations.

Hands On

You’re only allowed to harvest scallops by hand or using a landing or dip net.

No Sale

Commercial harvest is prohibited.

A License for Fun

You’ll need a Florida saltwater fishing license to harvest bay scallops except in two cases. The first case is if you’re exempt from needing a license. Exemptions include if you’re:

  • Saltwater fishing from a for-hire vessel (guide, charter, party boat) that has a valid charter license.
  • Saltwater fishing from a vessel whose operator has a valid recreational saltwater vessel license issued in the name of the operator of the vessel.
  • Under 16 years old
  • A Florida resident who’s 65 or older with proof of age or residency (for instance, a valid Florida Driver's License or ID Card), or with an optional Resident 65+ Hunt/Fish Certificate. These certificates are available free online at GoOutdoorsFlorida.com or at county tax collectors' offices.
  • A Florida resident who possesses a Florida Resident Disabled Person's Hunting and Fishing License.
  • A Florida resident who’s a member of the Armed Forces of the United States, who’s not stationed in this state, and is home on leave for 30 days or less.

Check out a more complete list of exemptions here.

The second case where you don’t need a license is if you have a no-cost shoreline fishing license and are wading from shore to collect scallops. The description of this is that your feet don’t leave bottom to swim, snorkel, or SCUBA, and that you don’t use a vessel to reach or return from the harvest location.  

Fly that Flag!

You need to use a prominently displayed divers-down warning device -- a divers-down flag, buoy, or other similar warning device-- when snorkeling for scallops. These devices are employed to alert nearby boaters that divers are in the water in the immediate area, to help keep the divers safe. This regulation applies whenever someone is totally or partially submerged and is using a face mask, snorkel or underwater breathing apparatus.
The divers-down warning device needs to meet the following requirements.

  • The divers-down warning device must contain a divers-down symbol, a red rectangle or square with a white diagonal stripe.
  • The size of the divers-down symbol depends on whether the divers-down warning device is displayed from the water or from a vessel. On the water, the divers-down symbol must be at least 12 x 12 inches in size. On a vessel, the symbol must be at least 20 x 24 inches in size.
  • When displayed on a boat, the divers-down warning device must be displayed at the highest point of the vessel so that its visibility is not obstructed in any direction.
  • If the divers-down warning device is a flag, the divers-down symbol must be on each face and have a wire stiffener or be otherwise constructed to ensure it remains fully unfurled and extended, even when there isn’t a wind or breeze.
  • If the divers-down symbol is a buoy, the buoy must have three or four sides with the divers-down symbol displayed on each of the flat sides. The buoy must be prominently visible on the water’s surface and can’t displayed on the vessel.
  • Boaters must make reasonable efforts to stay at least 300 feet away from divers-down warning devices in open water and at least 100 feet away in rivers, inlets, or navigation channels. Boaters approaching divers-down warning devices closer than 300 feet in open water and 100 feet in rivers, inlets, or navigation channels must slow down to idle speed.
  • Divers-must make a reasonable effort to stay within 100 feet of a divers-down flag or a buoy within rivers, inlets, or navigation channels and within 300 feet on open water.
  • A divers-down warning device may not be displayed when divers are out of the water.
  • Here’s where you can find complete information about dive flag regulations from the FWC as well as a short summary of dive flag regulations from the FWC.

It’s in the Bag

The daily bag limits are as follows:

Gulf through Northwest Taylor County and Levy through Pasco County:

Per person: Two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or one pint of bay scallop meat

Per vessel: A maximum of 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or a 1/2 gallon of bay scallop meat (1/2 gallon = four pints)

Fenholloway through Suwannee River Zone:

From June 15-30-

Per person: One gallon of whole bay scallops in the shell or one cup of bay scallop meat 

Per vessel: Five gallons whole or two pints of bay scallop meat

July 1-Labor Day

Per person: Two gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell or one pint of bay scallop meat

Per vessel: A maximum of 10 gallons of whole bay scallops in the shell, or 1/2 of gallon bay scallop meat (1/2 gallon = 4 pints)

Transit through closed areas: You can directly transit through closed areas with legally harvested bay scallops on board. This means that you can harvest scallops from open areas and return directly to a boat access point in a closed area without stopping. For example, you aren’t allowed to stop and fish for other species if you have scallops on board within a closed area.

Vessel limits don’t allow an individual to exceed their personal bag limit.

Scalloping Season by Location

Scalloping season varies by location. You can only harvest bay scallops from Florida state waters from the following zones during the following seasons:

St. Joseph Bay and Gulf County

Aug. 16-Sept. 24. This region includes all state waters from the Mexico Beach Canal in Bay County to the westernmost point of St. Vincent Island in Franklin County. The area marked with FWC buoys south of Black’s Island is a Bay Scallop Restoration Area, and no scalloping or anchoring is allowed there.

Franklin County through northwestern Taylor County (including Carrabelle, Lanark and St. Marks) 

July 1 through Sept. 24. This region includes all state waters from the westernmost point of St. Vincent Island in Franklin County to Rock Island near the mouth of the Fenholloway River in Taylor County.

Fenholloway through Suwannee Rivers Zone (including Keaton Beach and the Steinhatchee area) 

June 15 through Labor Day. This region includes all state waters east of Rock Island near the mouth of the Fenholloway River in Taylor County and north of Alligator Pass daybeacon #4 near the mouth of the Suwannee River in Levy County. This area has a lowered bag limit June 15-30. See bag limit section for more. 

Levy, Citrus and Hernando counties (including Cedar Key, Crystal River and Homosassa)

July 1 through Sept. 24. This region includes all state waters south of Alligator Pass daybeacon #4 near the mouth of the Suwannee River in Levy County and north of the Hernando – Pasco county line.

Pasco County

July 1 – Aug. 6, 2023. This region includes all state waters south of the Hernando – Pasco County line and north of Anclote Key Lighthouse in northern Pinellas County, and includes all waters of the Anclote River.

For graphics of each area and more information, check out myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/ .

Words to the Wise (Scallop Sagacity)

  • Going out with a charter will improve your chances of a successful scalloping trip, but if you want to go on your own, look for where the other boats are anchored.
  • Charters and hotel rooms are scarce the first and last weekends of season. Call early for reservations.
  • Likewise for charters; reserve early.
  • The earlier in the season you go scalloping, the smaller the scallops will be. Later in the season, it’s harder to find scallops, but they’ll be bigger, and as a result, easier to clean.
  • Paying someone to shuck your scallops is money well spent.

Fun Fact: Some scallops have bright yellow or orange shells, but it’s rare.

The Best Places to go Scalloping in Florida

Here’s your list of Sunshine State scalloping hotspots, including charters and restaurants that will prepare your catch for you.

Crystal River and Homosassa

Defined by water, and heralded as ‘The Manatee Capital of the World,’ Crystal River offers a historic downtown brimming with restaurants and cafes; shopping in its Heritage Village district; a lively event calendar; and hotels and motels throughout the town.
Nearby Homosassa is an original Florida fishing town that’s home to the world famous Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, centered around a second magnitude spring and breathtakingly beautiful. The park includes the Fishbowl Observatory, where you can descend underwater without getting wet and watch the fish and manatees that congregate there.
The scalloping in Crystal River and Homosassa is as legendary as its manatees, with abundant seagrass beds and shallow, clear water.

Here's where you can check out Scalloping Charters.

Here’s where you can find Boat Rentals.

Here’s where you can find Boat Ramps and Launches.

Here are Restaurants that will Cook your Catch.

Steinhatchee/Keaton Beach

Scalloping destinations in Taylor County include Steinhatchee, ‘a small town in the Big Bend’ with plentiful fishing, Victorian waterfront homes, and a tranquil vibe; Keaton Beach, a watery wonderland that’s home to the county’s primary public beach, a pier and public boat ramp; and Hagen’s Cove, a favorite getaway for former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, and perfect for landlubbers who prefer to wade into the shallow waters in search of scallops. 

Scalloping Charters

Boat Rentals

Here’s where you can find Boat Ramps and Launches.

Restaurants that will Cook your Catch

Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas

Nicknamed a ‘small town with a big heart,’ Port St. Joe encompasses white sand beaches, a waterfront marina, and a walkable downtown complete with antique shops and eateries.

Only 20 minutes away, Cape San Blas is a glorious study in secluded beaches and nature, delivering activities like fishing, kayaking, paddleboarding, biking, and hiking. 

Both are premiere scalloping destinations, with St. Joseph Bay hugged between them. On Cape San Blas, the clear, shallow waters of T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park are wildly popular for scalloping. There, you can wade for scallops or use a boat.

Here's where you can check out Scalloping Charters.

Here’s where you can find Boat Ramps and Launches.

Restaurants that will cook your catch include:

Fun fact: A single bay scallop is capable of producing millions of eggs at once, but only one egg out of 12 million is likely to reach adulthood.

Places to Remember