MANATEE -- Record prices during this year's Florida stone crab season may have elevated the standing of a sea creature already treated as a delicacy in some local restaurants and fish markets.
As the season ended late this week, it seems the prices may have more to do with a huge demand for the crustacean than ups and downs in the catch around the state.
So far, the state has registered a 1.7 million pound stone crab catch, which on the face of it would seem to be significantly less than the 2.7 million during the
2012 season. But with most of the catch documentation between February and May still to be processed by the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife, it's likely that final catch numbers will be on par with the past four years.
Wholesale prices for Florida stone crab jumped about 26 percent this year, to an average across all claw sizes of about $12 a pound, according Fish and Wildlife data. Even so, Manatee crab lovers couldn't get enough platefuls of the delicious claws.
"We were paying way over what the normal average was," said Robert Hicks, one of the co-owners of Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant on Longboat Key. "It was so much that it reflected in our menu prices."
A combination of a good catch last fall, a local falloff in saleable crabs and big consumer demand have made the Florida stone crab a dear commodity. It has caused some restaurant and market owners to look further afield for a steady supply of crabs, and to consider alternative crab species to satisfy demand.
At the same time, state officials who monitor the crab fishery are looking forward to a day when Florida crabbers put out fewer traps and come up with healthier catches.
Local catch down
Karen Bell, owner of Cortez fish market/restaurant Star Fish Company and co-owner of fish wholesaler AP Bell Fish Co., said crabbers working on her company's boats had a down year. Some local crabbers, she said, haven't pulled in their traps for the past couple of months because they haven't been catching crabs large enough to meet the state's legal size limit.
"We didn't get that many," said Bell, who also has ownership stakes in the Tide Tables restaurant in Cortez and the Cortez Cove Boatyard and Marina. "About 50 percent of last year."
The stone crab is trapped only for its two large claws, which must measure at least 2 3/4 inches long to be harvested. Crabbers break the claws off and return the crabs to the water. Florida stone crabs can regrow a severed claw to full market size in about 1 1/2 years. As a result, Florida stone crabs have been more expensive than usual at Bell's businesses.
Star Fish Company has been selling stone crab claws for between $18 and $25 a pound, depending on size. At the fish company's restaurant, chefs introduced 2/3-pound appetizers this year that cost less than the 1-pound and up crab dinners that are also available. Selling for $13 versus $22 for an entree, the appetizers made it easier for diners to budget for stone crab.
But big claws have been few and far between, showing up mostly near the start of the season last October. Hicks said he saw jumbo- and colossal-size claws coming off local crab boats during the first month of the season, but mostly mediums since then.
At Moore's, the big problem is keeping crab lovers coming in the door during crabbing's off season. Hicks said the restaurant is introducing California rock crab on its summer menu to keep crab lovers coming until the new season starts Oct. 15. The restaurant sells as much as 400,000 pounds of stone crab claws every year.
Bell and Hicks were able to get enough Florida stone crab claws this season by purchasing from north Florida, Everglades City and St. Petersburg. Why the local numbers were down is still a mystery. Bell said crabbers are concerned that an influx of octopuses -- a known stone crab predator -- has killed off part of the population.
Ryan Gandy, a research scientist with Fish and Wildlife, said that regional variation in the Florida stone crab population is typically the top reason crabbers in some areas may have seen a smaller harvest. Overall, the population is stable, he said, producing catches ranging between 2.6 million and 2.8 million pounds between 2009 and 2012. The highest production for the fishery in the past 25 years was 3 million pounds.
While predators can have a small effect on the number of stone crabs, the state is using other means to keep the population stable and crabbers profitable. Between 1997 and 2000, the number of Florida commercial crab traps increased from about 600,000 to 1.4 million. Gandy said that because the crab population remained the same, the yield per trap per catch dropped from about 5 pounds to less than a pound.
Since 2002, the state has been reducing the amount of commercial traps permitted under each crabbing license when those licenses are sold or transferred. Trap numbers are expected to drop to 1997 levels in about 35 years.
The trap reduction is expected to reduce the number of lost or "ghost" traps in the fishery. Fish and Wildlife studies have shown that 20 to 40 percent of traps can be lost during a single season. Ghost traps continue to catch crabs, many of which die unless a required wood panel in the trap degrades and breaks open.
Gandy said the state also encourages crabbers to harvest only one of the two claws on Florida stone crabs. While the crabs can feed at a minimal level without claws, they can eat more and more quickly grow back lost claws if they have at least one.
A study to be published by Fish and Wildlife in coming months shows that 30 to 40 percent of crabs that have their claws removed by recreational and commercial fisherman die, depending on the number of claws removed.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.