Every October, tens of thousands of crab traps scatter along near-shore Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay waters.
The majority of these are placed commercially from fishermen like brothers Ryan and Trek Hackney, hoping to cash in on the sometimes-lucrative stone crab fishery.
"We're running 1,000 traps this year between 15 and 30 feet of water from Madeira Beach down to Venice," Ryan Hackney said. "This year has started slow."
Before crabbing even starts, a Saltwater Product License (SWP) and Restricted Species Endorsement (RS) are needed to keep and sell crabs commercially. Each trap needs a tag, and to obtain tags they must be purchased from another crabber looking to sell their share. The state no long issues new trap tags.
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"A trap costs about $22 between the line, led, concrete, buoy and the trap itself," Hackney estimated.
For crabbers, there is a time frame each season before they start making money. Fans of the show "Deadliest Catch" are probably familiar with the crab game. Get to the crab grounds, deploy traps, find crabs, catch crabs, rebait traps, sell and repeat; hoping to end with big numbers for profit. Stone crabbing is similar, but with smaller boats, smaller crews, smaller crabs and smaller seas.
The goal is to catch the large clawed stone crabs, whose claws are then removed and sold in different sizes yielding various returns. The bigger the claw, the higher the price per pound. The crabs are returned to the water alive, with a chance to survive and regenerate the removed claw.
Now in his ninth year of crabbing, Ryan says there is money to be made, but it takes hard work, good conditions and luck. "In each trap, we need to catch about 1.5-pounds to pay for the traps. On a great year, we're averaging a ½-pound per trap. So far this year it's been about 1/6-pound per trap."
Each trap is checked about once a week, more often if the crabbing is better. They are able to check about 400 traps a day when crabbing is slow, and 250 when crabbing is good.
The slow start is nothing unusual, as last year was similar for crab hunters. With lower supply, prices have remained high for those seeking the delicious claws. Hackney knows less crab on market means eager consumers. "It's hard to hear people complain about high prices, they don't always know what goes into it."
The best conditions for crabbing are what other anglers dread, strong cold fronts and northwest winds. Crabs like muddier water to get on the move, and a few straight days of windy conditions cause the beach waters to become dirty.
With the lack of sustained cold fronts since the season opened, crabs aren't moving and therefore not getting caught.
"We're not making money right now; we're basically gambling," Hackney said. "Each trip costs money between the bait and the gas, and there hasn't been the return. It's fun when we're catching, but when no crabs are around (and we're) not seeing a return on the investment, it's mentally hard."
Other issues facing crabbers are lost gear and theft of crabs in traps. "We lose about 10 percent of our gear during a good year. Rough conditions can move traps or break lines, and we may never see them again," Hackney said.
Hackney estimates years where about 30 and 40 percent of his traps have been lost during rougher storms. Those tempted to raid traps should be aware it carries the punishment of a felony.
Next time you luckily dip some purchased stone crab meat in warm butter; know there is a lot of hard work that has gone into catching it. Most importantly, you're supporting local fishermen who partake in a very sustainable fishery.