Florida

Crabbers remember horrors of red tide. They’re hoping for a better season this year

Born and raised in Cortez, Lightning Campbell has fished and crabbed the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for most of his 72 years.

With memories still fresh of how last year’s red tide outbreak drastically affected the stone crab harvest, Campbell says he will put out 4,000 stone crab traps this season.

Asked what he thinks about prospects for this year’s stone crab harvest, which begins Tuesday, Campbell says it’s too early to tell.

“There was nothing here last year because of red tide. We had to crab off Tarpon Springs,” Campbell said, putting down a wrench while working on a boat engine.

While Campbell managed to salvage the season, the long days took a toll.

“We had to leave Cortez at 3 a.m. and we wouldn’t get home until 9 p.m. Every day that the weather would allow, we would go out. Twelve days is the most that we went out straight,” he said.

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Lightning Campbell has been fishing or crabbing the waters off Cortez most of his 72 years. He is hopeful that the red tide’s devastating affect on the stone crab season last season won’t be repeated this year. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Campbell seemed concerned when learning that the state detected traces of red tide off the coast of Manatee and Sarasota counties this week. Last year, red tide made the harvest more challenging and drove up prices for the delicacy charged to consumers.

This year’s stone crab harvest runs through May 15.

The harvest is open to commercial crabbers as well as those harvesting claws recreationally. Recreational crab fishers are limited to five traps per person. The harvester is required to have a recreational saltwater fishing license, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

During the harvest, only one claw of allowable size per crab may be taken. The size of the claw is considered to be the length of the propodus, the larger, immovable part of the claw. Legal-sized — harvestable size — claws are 2 3/4 inches or greater in propodus length, according to the state.

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A stone crab boat is docked at Cortez, awaiting the start Oct. 15 of the stone crab harvest. The harvest continues through May 15. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Claws from female crabs with orange or brown sponge egg sacs, may not be harvested. Egg-bearing females must be immediately returned to the water.

Stone crabs have the ability to regenerate claws, but they need at least one claw to survive.

Each crab boat typically carries a driver and two others working the traps, a commercial stone crab harvester told the Bradenton Herald.

“Last year was definitely the worst that I have seen,” said the crabber, who deferred to Campbell on all things stone crab. “Lightning is the highliner, the person who puts the most meat across the dock.”

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During the 2018 stone crab season, the harvest was down because of red tide, but still available at a higher price. Nick Giles holds a large stone crab claw at Star Fish Company, 12306 46th Ave W, Cortez. Bradenton Herald file photo

Brian Ibasfalean, production manager for A.P. Bell Fish Company Inc. in Cortez, said that because only trace amounts of red tide have been detected so late in the year off Manatee beaches and cooler weather is arriving, he is hopeful that any outbreak this year won’t be as severe as during the previous stone crab season.

Crabbers have been putting out traps in local traditional crabbing areas to see what happens, Ibasfalean said.

“They are saying that they are seeing some smaller crabs in the bay. That’s a good sign, because last year we saw none,” said Karen Bell, owner of A.P. Bell Fish Co. “They are seeing signs of recovery, but not like they hoped it would be.”

Traveling longer distances and spending more time on the water last season, Campbell said he was able to make a decent harvest of about 20,000 pounds.

That compares to 36,000 pounds in his best year with less travel and using fewer traps.

“If we don’t catch, we don’t eat. If the crabs aren’t here, we have to go where they are, or find something else to do,” Campbell said.

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