With about a month left before stone crab harvest season closes May 16, seafood lovers are diving deep into their wallets to enjoy their favorite delicacy.
A serving of 1½ to 2 pounds of jumbo claws will set you back about $90 at Miami Beach’s iconic Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant. Even for five large claws — the next smaller size — the price is about $60.
In other words, a few mouthfuls of a tasty entrée can cost way more than a barrel of crude oil — about $50 — in today’s world market.
“The prices are high across the board, but you’ve got to keep the fishermen fishing,” Steve Sawitz, chief operating officer of Joe’s, said. “The consumer is the last word. I’m just grateful we were able to get through and meet 90 percent of the demand. You have to have you-know-whats of steel in this business.”
Troubles are starting to surface in Florida’s stone crab industry. Last season’s harvest was the lowest in 28 years: 1.9 million pounds of claws were landed from Oct. 15, 2013 through May 15, 2014. But scarcity apparently drove up the value to a record $27 million. Tom Matthews, a veteran research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon, predicts the 2014-15 harvest numbers won’t be a lot higher.
“The population is down, and we are worried it will continue to go down,” Matthews said. “We want to ensure there’s a healthy population for years to come. We don’t want to sell the last stone crab and then it’s all gone.”
It’s not just one or two poor years that have Matthews and his FWRI colleague Ryan Gandy, a crustacean biologist in St. Petersburg, concerned. Both scientists point out that landings have been dropping year-to-year since 2000. The same trend is reflected in the catches in their research traps deployed in eight locations around the state.
Matthews and Gandy suggest a number of factors may be in play: too many traps in the water vying for a finite number of crabs; unknown mortality from lost traps with supposedly biodegradable panels that don’t function properly; warm-water mortality of declawed crabs; and maybe some unknown environmental factors.
“Is it high effort, environmental changes, population changes? Is it a combination of things?” Gandy said.
In 2002, with as many as 1.5 million stone crab traps in the water, the state of Florida launched a trap reduction program where fishermen who bought another fisherman’s business were allotted fewer traps. That program has progressed slowly, with about 1.1 million traps estimated in Florida waters today. Those numbers are not exact because crabbers may not deploy all the traps for which they hold permits.
“There are only a set amount of claws in a given year, and lots of gear,” Gandy said.
And Gandy recently conducted a study showing higher crab mortality when declawed in warm water compared to cooler water. The scientist found 60 percent of crabs with both claws removed died in water temperatures from 70 to 82 degrees. For crabs with one claw taken, mortality was 40 percent.
Even though stone crabs can regenerate a lost claw in about 18 months, Gandy said, the process uses up a lot of their energy — slowing growth and reproduction. With a maximum life span of seven to eight years, he said, the animal could die before it re-grows a claw large enough to harvest.
“With the trends we’re seeing in the fishery, there are concerns from all sides,” Gandy said.
He said Florida will conduct a stone crab stock assessment in 2016 using a wide range of data to determine what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Gary Graves, operator of Keys Fisheries in Marathon — the largest supplier to Joe’s — says his production is up 10 to 12 percent over last season, prices are high and “there’s more demand than there is product.”
For stone crab lovers willing to travel, buying in bulk in remote Everglades City might save a little cash.
Justin Grimm, manager of Grimm’s Stone Crab, is selling jumbo claws for $35 per pound, large for $26 and medium for $17.
“It’s been pretty good overall as far as we have seen,” Grimm said. “Last year was a very off year. It fluctuates — anything coming out of the wild. We generally have crabs up until the last day.”
Sawitz said if he had to buy stone crab claws for personal consumption, he’d stick to “selects” — about six claws to a pound that Joe’s sells for about $43.
“That’s the sweet spot for me,” he said.