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Crabbers to Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant: Pay us more

Who complains about stone crabs not costing enough? Crabbers, who on Tuesday went on strike against Joe’s Stone Crab accusing the legendary South Beach restaurant of setting wholesale prices unfairly low.

In Everglades City, a small group of fisherman refused to catch the popular crustaceans unless Joe’s, the top buyer of the claws, raised its initial price of $7 a pound.

“Last year, we ended at $11’’ for medium-sized claws, said MacBeth Collins, a crabber in Everglades City who puts out about 9,000 traps per season. “And that’s $4 — that’s a big difference.”

Joe’s defended the price as appropriate for the start of the seven-month season for stone crabs, saying it has never set wholesale rates this high on Day One. Stephen Sawitz, the COO of Joe’s, which his family owns, said prices typically increase as the season approaches Christmas. He said he did not want to be stuck overpaying for claws before he got a sense of how much supply would be out there this year. “If the price drops, I’m stuck,’’ he said.

Eight medium crabs typically make up a pound, so the starting price amounts to about 88 cents a claw. On opening night, Joe’s was selling seven claws for $28.95, or about $4.14 each.

Sawitz said the dispute involving about eight crabbing boats wouldn’t hurt Joe’s supply for its first week open after closing for the summer. Stone-crab season ends in May.

Crabbers in Marathon on Tuesday accepted the $7 price and will be sending fresh claws to Joe’s, Sawitz said. Joe’s also has reserves of frozen claws to make up for shortfalls in fresh supply, he said.

The dispute helps illustrate how squarely Joe’s, now 100 years old, sits in the center of the local stone-crab industry. It sells more claws than any other restaurant, has a popular shipping business and reported sales of $33 million a year.

The family behind Joe’s also owns two fisheries in Marathon and Everglades City that purchase the claws from independent fishermen. Many of those boat owners also rely on the Joe’s family empire for operating cash; the company provides loans to cover permits, fuel and other expenses.

There’s some dispute as to what Joe’s was paying for claws at this time last year. Sawitz said the price was $6.50, but crabber Kit Johnson said the early price was $11. Crabbers aren’t asking for a price that high this year. Collins said they want Joe’s to boost the wholesale price to $8 per pound. “We’re looking for a dollar across the board,’’ he said. “We think that’s fair.”

WLRN-Miami Herald News reporter Kelley Mitchell and contributor Patricia Sagastume contributed to this report.