TAMPA — Nothing gets the appetite going like a big plate of stone crab claws with a cup of drawn butter or mustard sauce.
For those who make their living harvesting and selling those claws, though, the just-ended season left them a little hungry, though it wasn’t as bad as last year.
“Last year was pretty tough,” said Tommy Shook, general manager of seafood operations at Frenchy’s Seafood Co. in Pinellas County. “This year is better.”
But not great, he said, as he sold a customer a few pounds of medium-size crab claws, the only size he had left by midafternoon. Stone crab season ended Thursday.
“We had our ups and downs this year, but we kept our head above water,” he said. “It’s better than last year, but by no means was this a special year.”
Only the crabbers who have lots of equipment and who can afford to make frequent trips to check traps made money, he said.
“A lot of the smaller guys really had a tough go of it.”
Stone crabs are mostly harvested along Florida’s Gulf Coast; the season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15. Crabs are trapped, pulled to the surface and one or both of their claws snapped off.
The crabs are returned to the water and, within a year, maybe sooner, grow new claws.
Typically, in a good season, crabbers can bring in 800 pounds a trip, Shook said, but by the end of the season, hauls were only topping out at 200 pounds.
“As fast as they come in,” he said, “they go out.”
He said he supplies his own restaurants first, then everything else is shipped to eateries in Chicago, New York and Las Vegas.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a better year next year,” he said.
“But hey, it’s fishing,” said Shook, who has been in the commercial fishing business for three decades.
“Like I say, the only guarantee in fishing is there is no guarantee.”
Last year, crabs had to contend with octopi that, for a combination of naturally occurring reasons, wriggled into the traps all up and down the coast, getting the first shot at the tasty morsels.
Ryan Gandy, a crustacean researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said stone crab claw harvesters can say years are better or worse, but the fishery remains fairly constant.
“It’s very close,” he said. There is a finite number of crabs available every year. That number has been stable for the past decade.
“But what happens is that the fishermen have to compete for that amount of product that’s available. That means the catch per trap has gone down from year to year since the mid-1990s, and the reason for that is that the number of traps has gone up.”
In other words, there are more crabbers after the same number of crabs.
“Regionally, you may have an off year,” Gandy said, “like in the Keys or Collier County, but that’s made up in other parts of the state.”
Overall, he said, “It’s a pretty stable fishery.”
Gandy said in the season that started in 2009, 2.66 million pounds of stone crab claws were harvested, bringing an average wholesale price of $6.50 a pound; in the 2010 season, 2.58 million pounds brought in $9 a pound; in 2011, 2.8 million pounds harvested brought $9 a pound. In 2012, 2.7 million pounds fetched an average wholesale price of $9.50.
Gandy said estimates of the Gulf Coast stone crab populations are based on two sets of numbers: traps set up by the state between St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to the north and the Keys to the south, and a count provided by the crabbers.
He said fishermen don’t typically fill out those surveys until long after the season closes, and precise numbers typically aren’t available until November or December.
Still, he said, the pounds of stone crab claws harvested this year likely won’t differ much from those caught over the past five seasons.
“It’ll be very close,” he said.