Florida Keys

Stone crab season off to promising start in Florida Keys

Weak stone crab harvest disappoints crabbers, seafood lovers

Hurricane Irma suspected of disrupting season. Fishermen in the Village of Cortez hope better days are ahead.
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Hurricane Irma suspected of disrupting season. Fishermen in the Village of Cortez hope better days are ahead.

The state’s stone crab fishery should expect to take a hit this season from the red tide algae bloom that’s been plaguing Florida’s west coast for months, but the Keys, which accounts for 65 percent of the harvest of the sought-after claws, does not appear to be affected.

The eight-month commercial season began Monday, with fishermen pulling traps that have been soaking for the past 10 days. Monday afternoon, boats were still coming back from the water, but Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association, said captains were reporting a promising first day.

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Stone crabs are harvested only for their claws. The crab is thrown back in the water and the claw regenerates. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. Miami Herald File

“They’re still making their first pulls, but production doesn’t look awfully bad in the Florida Keys,” Kelly said. “As far as red tide, the Keys, it doesn’t look like there is going to be any impact.”

The claws should be showing up at fish markets and restaurants like the popular Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach by Tuesday. Consumers should expect to pay about $18.99 a pound for medium claws, $28.99 for large, $36.99 for jumbos and $42.99 for “colossal” claws, Kelly said.

“The prices for stone crabs have never been cheap,” he said.

For medium, large, jumbo and colossal claws, fishermen are being paid $8.50, $17, $23 and $27 a pound respectively, Kelly said.

Stone crab fishing is unique in its sustainability. Only the claw is harvested, and the crab is thrown back in the water and typically lives to regenerate another claw.

While the forecast for Keys fishermen looks optimistic, those harvesting claws from Everglades City up to Tampa are likely in for a rough season due to the algae bloom. Kelly spoke with a boat captain in Fort Myers who pulled 100 traps off Pine Island for a total of 14 claws. Ideally, there should have been a pound of claws in each trap, Kelly said.

Ryan Gandy, a leading crab biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said pre-season pulls show the crabs are in low supply in most near-shore spots from Naples to Tampa Bay, which he said is a probable result of red tide..

“We are concerned about the low catch in the region impacted by red tide,” he said in an email Monday. “In August, we started a pre-season collaboration with commercial stone crab fishermen off Pine Island to sample offshore of Sanibel. The results of the effort show the nearshore catch was impacted by the algae bloom.”

Normally, red tide is a deep-water event, but because of wind direction and an absence of a real cold front last year, a red tide that had been present farther out at sea blew in close to shore and spread throughout the west coast, Kelly said. Fishermen and scientists are hopeful that the powerful Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Panhandle last week, may have dissipated the bloom. However, Kelly said there’s also a concern the storm may have broken it up into blocks that will spread to other parts of the state.

Nevertheless, for now, west coast fishermen who are still hoping for some semblance of a harvest this season are placing their traps farther out to sea, Gandy said.

Stone crab claws bring in almost $30 million to the state’s economy, according to the FWC. The long-term average harvest statewide per season is 2.8 million pounds. Last season was below average, with 2.2 million pounds, Gandy said.

However, the good news for fishermen was the market price was high, keeping the state’s fleet afloat, Gandy said.

“Last year’s market price remained high, resulting in only a slight negative impact to overall revenue for the fishery, valued at $29.7 million,” he said. “This is still well above the long-term average revenue of $22.1 million for the fishery.”

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