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Stone crabs return, prices hold steady

In a year when the Gulf oil spill once threatened Florida shores, add this to the list of things to be thankful for:

Stone crabs are back, with prices comparable to last year’s claws.

“They’re having a really good season actually, they taste great,” said Felipe Christiansen of Miami Beach, a stone crab devotee who often buys the claws direct from a Keys-based fisherman. “I’ve been eating them since the season started.”

The annual stone crab season began Oct. 15, and runs until May 15. At Milam’s supermarket in Coconut Grove, the claws are actually on sale -- though they will still set you back considerably more than some other seafood items. Medium claws have been discounted from $15.99 to $14.99 a pound, and large claws have been discounted from $25.99 to $21.99 a pound.

Jumbo claws are priced at $28.99 a pound.

Locally, the season “started out real slow, but picked up after the first cold spell,” said Walter Bell with AP Bell Fish Co. in Cortez. “We are hoping for another cold snap and more crabs.”

Production has been good, said his daughter Karen Bell. “Prices are stable for the boats. It’s a good year so far, we were worried about the oil spill, but so far we’re doing OK. I hear things are not as well north of us like in the Cedar Key area, but last year was their year.”

One troubling sign that has popped up are octopus.

“We are catching quite a bit of octopus in the traps, octopus eat a lot of crab meat, they follow the crabs into shallow waters,” she said.

In 2009, Manatee harvested 52,958 pounds of crab meat, part of the 2.6 million statewide. That was a low year for Manatee which normally harvests more than 100,000 pounds.

“We are headed in that direction, right now it’s looking good,” Karen Bell said.

Retail prices are pretty much the same as last year, said store Manager Oliver Orozco. But a sudden change in weather -- such as a cold spell -- could make the claws more scarce and lead to higher prices, Orozco cautioned.

In previous years, supply drops in stone crabs led Milam’s to charge as much as $36.99 a pound, Orozco said.

Lee Schlesinger of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said stone crab prices have dropped the past two or three years, something he largely attributed to the sour economy.

“Most people weren’t buying as much stone crab because it is expensive,” he said.

It will be much easier to assess this year’s stone crab prices after the season has progressed a bit more, Schlesinger said, such as after Jan. 1.

“It’s very hard to predict the prices in the stone crab industry,” Schlesinger said. “Things can change, month to month, week to week and even day to day.”

At Miami Beach’s posh Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant, prices are holding steady for now. A pound of jumbo claws, along with the usual butter and mustard sauces, costs $71.95. Large claws are priced at $48.95, and mediums are $25.95.

In 1963, according to Joe’s website, stone crabs cost 30 cents a dozen wholesale.

Out in the Florida waters where the vast majority of stone crab claws are harvested, there’s competition for attention -- this time, from fishermen.

“Usually stone crab fishermen catch Caribbean spiny lobster as well,” said Rodger Duarte, owner and founder of George’s Stone Crab in Key Biscayne. “There has been a huge increase in catch for the lobster. Fishermen don’t have to go as far out into the ocean to catch them so that’s also impacting the stone crab supply, in turn affecting the prices.”

For now, at least, the spiny lobster has not spiked prices enough to earn the title of Stone Crab Spoiler.

-- Herald staff contributed to this report