The weight you gain these days from a plateful of hefty stone crab claws soaked in drawn butter or mustard sauce is offset by the weight you lose from your wallet.
Stone crab suddenly is hard to find in local restaurants and fish markets and expensive when it’s available. Blame the weather, natural population fluctuations and an influx of octopus that love stone crabs even more than hungry Floridians do.
Stone crabs are only harvested along Florida’s Gulf Coast; the season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15. Crabs are trapped, pulled to the surface and their claws snapped off.
The clawless crabs are returned to the water and, within a year, maybe sooner, grow new claws. This year’s harvest started out strong but has spiraled into a dismal showing the past couple of months.
Tommy Shook is general manager of seafood operations at Frenchy’s Seafood Co. in Pinellas County. Frenchy’s hosts a stone crab festival each October.
“I’ve been in the business 30 years,” Shook said. “I haven’t seen a year like this.”
He said the season started strong in October, possibly because a couple of tropical storms last fall “really stirred the crabs up and made them crawl. It was a very good start, but it went downhill after that.”
The recent cold snaps didn’t help.
“When it gets cold, they don’t want to crawl,” he said. “It makes them lethargic. Last year in February, we got 7,000 pounds of claws. This year, we’ve only done 2,860. It’s not even half.”
Then there’s the octopus problem.
Because of the weather and water temperature, octopuses came inshore to spawn and never left, he said. “We are catching more octopus (in stone crab traps) now than crabs. The octopus is the No. 1 stone crab predator, and they are wreaking havoc with us this year.”
If anything, Shook said, the season is getting worse. The boats that supply Frenchy’s typically catch 400-plus pounds a night, but now “we’re lucky if they bring in 100 pounds.”
“Some of my guys already have given up on the season,” Shook said. Out of 10 boats that crab for Frenchy’s, three have called it quits, he said, opting to return to grouper fishing or other marine endeavors.
The result is fewer crabbers pulling up fewer crabs. Prices mostly have risen on the retail end by a couple of dollars a pound, maybe more in some places, Shook said.
“Prices are as high as they’ve ever been,” Shook said. “There are not enough of them, and we’re paying more for them.”
Michael Johnston of Star Fish Company Seafood Market in Cortez said the season started strong but “plunged” right after Christmas.
He puts the bulk of the blame on the weather. And, of course, the ever-present cephalopods.
Squid and octopus squeeze into the traps alongside stone crabs and “suck the meat out of their claws.” He said that makes the crabs sick and they end up dying in the traps.
A crab boat in bountiful times comes in with 300 to 400 pounds of claws, he said. Now some boats pull up to the dock with 5 pounds, he said.
Crabbers, who spend an average of $1,200 a trip, have been limiting excursions to hold costs down, leaving stone crab claw eaters hungry.
Some markets and restaurants have raised prices considerably, Johnston said, but his has jumped just $2 from last year to $21.95 a pound for medium-size claws.
Some eateries are getting an average of $27 to $30 a pound for claws, depending on the size.
Ernest Hamilton Stone Crab Inc. in Everglades City is considered the epicenter of the stone crab fishery. It has 10 boats harvesting traps. Manager Randy Montero said the shortage has hit his fleet of crab boats, too.
“It depends on the weather, the time spent on the traps. There’s no precise number. But it’s down compared to prior years. It’s an off year.”
Ryan Gandy, a crustacean researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said natural factors figure into how many stone crabs end up in traps.
“A lot of people think a fishery stays steady, but it does not,” Gandy said. “This is one of the low years, but it’s not the worst we’ve ever seen.”
Gandy said weather is a factor, and red tide. Predators such as octopus are playing a bigger part this year, too, he said.
The eight-legged varmints are particularly abundant in stone crab traps hauled in from the waters off Pinellas County north to Cedar Key and Steinhatchee, he said.
Typically, robust years are followed by a couple of years of declining harvests, a decline that could total more than 30 percent, Gandy said.
Gandy said the BP oil spill three years ago has had no effect on stone-crab production along Florida’s southwest coast, which is the only place in the world where stone crabs are harvested commercially. A typical year finds some 1,200 licensed stone crabbers taking 2 million to 3 million pounds of claws.
Sixty percent of the harvest takes place off the coasts of Monroe and Collier counties; 20 percent from Collier to Pinellas, and 20 percent from Pinellas north, Gandy said.
Though this year is bad, that doesn’t mean next year will be, he said.
“This is a fishery that is very resilient,” he said.