MANATEE -- All of last week, the scenery in Cortez, the small commercial fishing village in west Bradenton, resembled an automobile assembly line.
A sea of traps lay across the docks, waiting to be cleaned, painted and marked by fishermen for the start of the 2012 stone crab season.
Inside the Star Fish Company Market and Restaurant in Cortez, the phone rang constantly.
"We had people call before the season event started," said Laurie Jones, manager of the Star Fish Company. "People are very excited. We're very blessed at Star Fish. We're known throughout the world."
And retailers are optimistic that the 2012 stone crab season, which officially began on Monday and runs through May 15, will result in increased sales and harvests compared to a lackluster 2011 season.
Last year, Manatee brought in about 38,000 pounds of stone crab claws on 380 trips, a huge drop off from 86,000 pounds on 681 trips in 2010. Experts said a warm winter had a huge impact on the season.
"We had a very mild winter," said John Stevely, Manatee's University of Florida sea grant extension agent. "I suspect weather conditions last year played a role in the lower landings."
Florida hauled in 2.6 million pounds of stone crab claws last season valued at just over $23 million. Figures were similar in 2010, which saw an average price of $9.12 per pound for claws, but depending on size, could have been priced as high as $20 per pound. Stevely said prices for stone crab should remain steady this season, but it depends on the climate.
"The seasons are so variable," he said. "Sometime a season can start out slow but as cold fronts flow through, crabs move around more and get into the traps. But a good opening day is always a promising sign."
Jones said the Star Fish market went through 100 pounds of crab claws on the first day of sales. The establishment can sell several hundred pounds per week.
"This year, it looks very, very good," she said. "The claws are big and pretty. We're looking for good season"
To celebrate the new season, the Cortez community is hosting a stone crab festival. The 1st Cortez Stone Crab Festival, two day of stone crab and music, will take place at the N.E. Taylor Boat Yard, 119th St. W., on Nov.3 and 4.
The Pinchers Crab Shack in Lakewood Ranch, 10707 Rodeo Drive, off Main Street, will host its inaugural Stone Crab Festival 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday,. The festival, which is expected to draw 10,000 people, will include live music, kids activities and items from the restaurant's menu. The owners of Pinchers started a similar festival in Naples three years and wanted to create one for the Manatee area.
Pinchers Crab Shack has eight locations on the west coast of Florida and gets its supply of stone crab off the coast of Pine Island near Fort Myers. On opening day, the retailers' supplier hauled in 13,000 pounds of stone crab.
At Star Fish, medium claws typically sell at $20.95 per pound, large claws at $22.95 per pound and jumbo at $24.95 per pound. The market also offers the claws in "colossal" sizes at $25.95 per pound. On Tuesday, Jones said the crab claws were selling fast, from opening to close.
"We finished the day with bang," she said.
Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams