Draw your butter and get your mustard sauce ready: Stone crab season starts Sunday.
But the big question this year is how abundant — and how expensive — the claws will be a month after a hurricane wrecked a huge swath of the fishing areas in the Florida Keys.
“I don’t know what the catch is going to be — a good season or not,” Joe’s owner Stephen Sawitz said.
Fresh Florida spiny lobster was hard to find in the last month, after the trapping industry bore Hurricane Irma’s brunt. The storm scattered and destroyed tens of thousands of lobster traps as the Keys’ fishing industry — the second-largest economic driver in Monroe County at more than $150 million — was paralyzed for three weeks.
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Stone crab traps, however, were on dry land and spared the bulk of the damage. Most went in the water Oct. 5, though fishermen won’t know until Sunday, when they are first legally allowed to pull them out, how good the stone crab catch will be.
“What did Hurricane Irma do to the stone crab haul? We’re going to find out,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
South Beach’s Lobster Bar Sea Grille says it expects to have fresh stone crab claws by Wednesday. Its parent company, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, has its own seafood company but felt the effects of the storm.
“They did have a little set back due to the hurricanes, but not by much since we source and fish our own crab,” David Abes, the chief operating officer, told the Miami Herald in an email. “We stand by our 48-hour sea-to-table rule and look forward to kicking off our first Miami stone crab season.”
The storm won’t deter the South Beach Seafood Festival, which kicks off Tuesday with the first of four events on Miami Beach before Saturday’s day-long tasting.
“We want to celebrate all the local seafood cuisine. The impact of the stone crabs is not that large,” festival founder Tod Roy said.
Joe’s, which opens for its 104th stone crab season, also has its own fishing operations in the Keys, Keys Fisheries and in Everglades City. The facility on the southwest coast of Florida was hit hard, Sawitz said, as walls had to be repaired and docks rebuilt, although fishing boats and machinery were spared.
Keys Fisheries’ phone lines are still down after the storm, though it was always on generator power, thanks to its insurance company shipping loads of diesel fuel on a barge. Joe’s expects its first shipments of fresh stone crab claws Monday morning.
“They had a rough go. This business is not for the faint-hearted,” Sawitz said. “We know they’re hurting.”
Stone crabs claw sales mean about $35 million to the Keys every year. On average, the state hauls about 2.5 million pounds. About 65 percent of those are trapped in Monroe County.
What percentage will end up on dinner plates is in the hands of Keys fishermen hoping to save their season.
“We know the fishermen are going to be pulling aggressively,” Sawitz said. “They have to get back. It’s their livelihood. ... and they’re looking forward to it.”
South Beach Seafood Week
What: The South Beach Seafood Festival returns for its fifth year, with events beginning Tuesday, culminating with the festival Saturday.
When: Oct. 17 is the first dining event at Joe’s Stone Crab with a Chef’s Showdown cooking competition set for Friday. The festival runs noon-7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Lummus Park, 1130 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach
More information: Cost ranges from $45 general admission ticket to a $250 weekend pass that includes Friday’s chef competition. SoBeSeafoodFest.com