Stone crab harvest bleak, but prices steady locally

cnudi@bradenton.comDecember 20, 2012 

MANATEE -- Prices for stone-crab claws in the Miami area are higher this season because the commercial fishermen in the Keys have had a poor harvest.

But prices in Manatee County for the seafood favorite have held steady in spite of the same bad catch area crabbers are experiencing, according to a local restaurateur.

"It's not unusual for there to be a poor catch in one area," said Alan Moore, owner of Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant on Longboat Key, "It's more unusual that it's down statewide."

More said he has been holding his prices steady and will do so through the season, unless something worse happens.

The area commercial fishermen are catching a lot of octopus, which also may be affecting the stone-crab harvest, said Karen Bell, manager of the Bell's Fish Company in Cortez.

"Octopus are the natural predator of the stone crab," Bell said. "I had one fisherman bring in 60 pounds of stone-crab claws and 314 pounds of octopus."

In a normal season, it is usually the opposite, she said.

Regardless of the poor harvest, Bell said they have not raised prices. Claws at Bell's are selling for $12 a pound, she said.

Unlike local restaurants and seafood markets, those in the Miami area have increased their prices for the delicacy, according to a news service report.

The stone crab claw season started Oct. 15 and ends May 15.

Despite skyrocketing prices for stone-crab claws, many Florida Keys commercial fishermen have almost given up on the season just two months into the season.

"We may see record prices but also record pain," said Gary Graves, general manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. "Prices don't mean anything if you can't catch anything."

Harvests since shortly after the season opening have been "as bad as I can remember during my 45 years in the business," Graves said. "It's just bleak."

Keys Fisheries, one of the state's leading wholesalers for stone crabs, has laid off half of its production staff -- maybe 20 people, Graves said.

Graves told The Miami Herald that big harvests should be around 15,000 pounds of claws. Instead, fishermen are only seeing 1,000-pound harvests.

"Blame it on global warming, blame it on BP (Deepwater Horizon oil spill), blame it on Mother Nature," Graves said. "Everybody's got an idea but nobody can say why. It's probably a combination of a bunch of things."

News reports from stone-crab fleets up the Florida Gulf Coast suggest an octopus population explosion, he said.

Crabs are a favorite food of octopus, which are smart enough to get into traps.

"We've seen more octopus in the six- to eight-pound range, which is abnormal," Graves said.

State experts have suggested warm winters may have triggered the octopus boom.

"Things could turn around," Graves said, 'but realistically the chances of it happening this season are slim."

Stone crabs claws are a Christmas tradition in many Florida homes, but with this year some people may have to find another dish to add to their table.

"We're covering our decrease in stone crab sales with mullet sales," Bell said. "I hope everyone here eats more mullet for Christmas."

-- Material from the The Associated Press and KeysNet.com was used in this report.

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