MANATEE -- Between red tide to the south and crystal clear waters around Manatee County, it seems like Stone Crab lovers can't catch a break.
What started off as a fairly strong season has gotten soft in the middle of the season. Red tide to the south killed off some of stone crabs, while crystal clear waters around Manatee County and north have given octopus and turtles great visibility to find the stone crab traps and feed on a virtual underwater buffet.
But stone crab aficionados shouldn't lose hope. There's still plenty of time for the season -- which doesn't end until May 15 -- to rebound, said Ryan Gandy, a research scientist at Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
What's going on now is all part of the ebb and flow of the natural environment, he said. There's not much you can do to control it and there's no need to panic over week-to-week or even month-to-month fluctuations.
"When we look at numbers for landings, it's a bad year but not the worst we've seen," Gandy said. "With the season not over yet, its hard to say where we'll end up. It's not like this is a fisheries crash. It's a normal cy
North of Pinellas County, Gandy said, the stone crab catch is better than they've seen in recent years.
Gandy also said that the institute's data doesn't indicate that the BP Gulf oil spill had an impact on stone crab populations.
Michael Johnston, who runs the fish market at Star Fish Seafood Market, said the Manatee crabbers haven't been affected by red tide, instead it's mainly the weather and the hungry octopus that are affecting their catches.
The fishermen know that because they have been bringing up octopus with, and even in, their crab traps.
Johnston said the octopus get into the traps and "suck the meat out of the claws."
"The season started out excellent," Johnston said, "and then we slowly started on a downfall."
But the scarcity does not mean anyone is profiting -- fishermen or retailers. A trapping trip can cost as much as $1,200 per day in expenses including fuel, crew, and bait -- and this season's meager catches may not even cover costs.
The slide in available stone crab claws means that fewer restaurants are serving them in the middle of the season and, for those who are, the price has risen.
Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant serves the tasty crustacean's throughout the season.
Robert Hicks, one of the restaurant owners, said that they have had to raise prices on stone crabs this year, while also cutting profits. But they have had plenty of claws to serve the customers during the six-month season.
"The prices are a little more," Hicks said. "We're not making a lot of money, but we're selling it at a price we feel comfortable. We can't pass it all on to the customer, but there are ways to absorb it."
They are augmenting their local supply of stone crab claws with catches out of Everglades City and St. Pete Beach from dealers that they have developed relationships with over the years, Hicks said. Rather than pay shipping prices, someone from the restaurant drives to the suppliers to pick up the claws.
The number of crabbers serving the restaurant locally dropped from nine to two this winter, he said, because the catches have been so poor.
"You just have to look a little harder," Hicks said. "But we've been doing this for 50 years. When you have stone crab in your name, you know what you're doing."
And despite the current short supply, Hicks said the restaurant is planning its annual "all-you-can-eat" buffet at the end of the season.
"They'll start coming back," Hicks said. "We got 190 pounds today and 200 pounds yesterday. Paul (Moore) is going to get 500 pounds tomorrow."
-- Material from the Miami Herald was used in this report
Toni Whitt, Business editor, can be reached at 941-745-7087. Follow her @ToniTwhitt.