Despite rocketing prices for stone-crab claws, many Florida Keys commercial fishermen have nearly given up on the season only 2 months old.
"We may see record prices but also record pain," said Gary Graves, general manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. "Prices don't mean anything if you can't catch anything."
Harvests since shortly after the season opening Oct. 15 have been "as bad as I can remember during my 45 years in the business," Graves said. "It's just bleak."
Keys Fisheries, one of the state's leading wholesalers for stone crabs, has laid off half of its production staff, maybe 20 people, Graves said.
"We hate to do it to our people but we're probably not finished," he said. "Right now, a big day for us is 1,000 pounds [of claws]. It should be around 15,000 pounds. We're doing nothing."
Keys Fisheries has raised its dockside prices paid to fishermen several times to encourage fishermen to keep their traps in the water.
Graves said it costs a fisherman about $1,200 in fuel, labor and other expenses to make a day's trip. The fish house's current prices are $9 per pound for medium-size claws and $17 per pound for the coveted jumbos.
"Our wholesale sales prices are higher than that and retail is through the roof," Graves said. "But we can't fill the orders we have."
A Marathon community group recently canceled the organization's annual stone crab feast for members because no claws were to be found.
The season runs until May 15.
Last season, Monroe County produced about 1.1 million pounds of legal-size claws, accounting for a large portion of Florida's total 2.67 million-pound harvest worth an estimated $23.6 million to the commercial fleet.
About 1,000 people statewide are licensed to fish traps for stone crabs. Only the claws are kept. Historically, stone-crab harvests have topped three million pounds of claws.
"The last two years were good and the recruitment looked normal," Graves said. "The first round of trap pulling was fine but it went downhill from there like falling off a cliff."
Fishermen and researchers are baffled.
"Blame it on global warming, blame it on BP [Deepwater Horizon oil spill], blame it on Mother Nature," Graves said. "Everybody's got an idea but nobody can say why. It's probably a combination of a bunch of things."
News reports from stone-crab fleets farther up the Florida Gulf Coast suggest an octopus population explosion. Crabs are a favorite food of octopus, which are smart enough to get into traps.
"We've seen more octopus in the 6- to 8-pound range, which is abnormal," Graves said. State experts have suggested warm winters may have triggered the octopus boom.
"Things could turn around," Graves said, "but realistically the chances of it happening this season are slim."