Craving seasonal stone crabs? Get ready to pay plenty at Joe’s, Truluck’s, Billy’s and more

With about two months left in Florida’s stone crab harvest season, get ready to empty your wallet if you want to dine on the state’s signature seafood delicacy.

Prices are the highest in recent memory, according to restaurateurs and seafood dealers around the state, and they’re not expected to drop much before the season closes May 15.

At world-renowned Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, you will shell out about $90 for 1 1/2 pounds of jumbos. For large, figure about $60; mediums — the smallest — are about $30 for just under a pound.

“It’s getting crazy,” acknowledged Steve Sawitz, chief operating officer of Joe’s.

Across town at Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crab House in Miami, all-you-can eat large stone crabs cost $99 per person.

“The highest I’ve ever seen it,” manager Ed Tanner said.

Even if you drive to takeout markets at Keys Fisheries in Marathon or Triad Seafood Market in Everglades City, you’ll pay about $38 per pound for jumbos down to about $17 for mediums.

Why are stone crabs (a luxury) nearly up there with a barrel of crude oil (a necessity)?

Lots of reasons, say those in the know, including an early season shortage, weather, octopuses and continued high demand.

When stone crab season opened Oct. 15, retail prices started out nearly twice as high as usual — about $15 per pound for mediums compared to about $8 in previous years. That happened partly because the 2012-13 season was so bad that trappers were discouraged from setting their gear, Matt Loder Sr., CEO of Crabby Bill’s restaurants, told the Tampa Bay Times.

In Everglades City, some trappers went on strike because seafood houses were offering them about $7.50 for mediums. They decided to sit it out and wait for prices to rise.

Meanwhile, fishermen in Fort Myers and tiny Steinhatchee in the Big Bend went out to harvest their traps — only to find them loaded with octopuses and no crabs. They say the tentacled creatures are eating their catch.

“The last pull, my husband did 250 traps and got 14 pounds of crab claws,” said Toby McKinney who runs McKinney Stone Crab Co. in Steinhatchee with husband Hayward. “It’s just been bad. We’ve just been sinking.”

And Chamber of Commerce weather — sunny skies, moderate temperatures and a lack of blustery cold fronts — has made things tough for Keys fishermen, said Gary Graves, operator of Keys Fisheries.

“We need cold snaps. We need wind,” Graves said. “It’s been too hot, too calm.”

Another factor in the Keys catch is that many trappers have stuck with lobstering because they are getting high prices for the competing crustaceans in China.

Sawitz, one of the largest buyers of stone crabs anywhere, says demand was very high earlier this season — tourists yearning for a taste of Florida; wholesalers in the Northeast “who will pay any price” — while supplies were down. But now, he says, prices are so high that they’ve caused gluts for some buyers in the small and medium sizes, which are more plentiful this time of year.

“Right now, the demand is off because the price is so high,” Sawitz said. “You’ve got to come down to move your product.”

Ryan Gandy, who studies crustacean biology at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, says part of the problem is that there are too many fishermen setting too many traps for a finite number of legal-size stone crab claws. (Fishermen may harvest both of the crab’s claws, but they must measure a minimum of 2 3/4 inches and the animal must be released alive.)

“They’re having to fish harder to get the same volume of crab [claws] as the previous year,” Gandy said. “We know there’s a limited number of claws out there. If there’s more effort, it’s going to be divided up among them.”

The state launched a trap limitation program in 2002, but it has been slow to work, Gandy said. He said there are still about 1.3 million traps in the fishery statewide — far from the goal of 600,000 traps.

The good news is that so far the stock does not seem to be in trouble. The average seasonal harvest has been stable at between 2.5 million and 2.7 million pounds since 1997, according to Gandy. Last year’s catch, which fishermen predicted would be way down from previous seasons, was actually higher than in 2009 and 2010.

“Crustaceans have high reproductive rates, producing millions of eggs,” Gandy said. “They reproduce their way out of this high level of harvest. That’s why you see that level of stability with effort over time.”

Michael Leffler, manager of Billy’s Stone Crab restaurant in Hollywood, said crabs haven’t been hard to find this season at all.

“We buy anywhere from the Keys to the Panhandle,” Leffler said. “It’s been great and a plentiful season.”