Stone crabbers experienced crustacean frustration this season. They say red tide is to blame

The stone crab harvest was down this year — way down — and local crabbers say it was because of red tide.

With Wednesday marking the final day of harvest for the 2018-19 season, several Cortez crabbers left their boats tied up at the dock, rather than scouting for the hard-to-find crustaceans.

“It’s been a very slow year,” said Brian Ibasfalean, production manager for A.P. Bell Fish Company Inc. “The boats are way off. (Tuesday), it was about 15 pounds of stone crab. (Wednesday), so far, nothing. It’s red tide, I’m pretty sure.”

Ibasfalean, who has crabbed most of his life, said he has seen worse years. But this year, crabbers had to sail north to Clearwater and Tarpon Springs to find waters clear of red tide.

“Red tide killed us,” said Kevin Augsburger, who has been crabbing for 30 years. “The only way we were able to find stone crab was to go to Tarpon Springs, where red tide stopped. It was the worst season I can remember.”

Another crabber who declined to give his name said that he has been crabbing since 1974, and this is the worst season he can remember.

“I can tell you this, God takes care of us. It will be a good year next year,” he said.

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Brian Ibasfalean, production manager for A. P. Bell Fish Company, Inc., said he believes the downtown in stone crab supply this season was due to red tide. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Prices in markets and restaurants reflect the scarcity of stone crab this year.

At Star Fish Company, 12306 46th Ave. W. in Cortez, jumbo stone crab claws were selling for $34.95 a pound on Wednesday, while mediums were selling for $22.95.

Even so, when the claws are available, they sell out quickly, a Star Fish employee said.

Marcia Schaub had out-of-town guests coming to visit and bought two pounds of claws and shrimp to give them a taste of the best that Cortez has to offer.

“That works out to two claws per person for five people,” Schaub said.

Paul Moore of Cortez Bait and Seafood said he didn’t catch anything off Manatee County shores, but stone crab were plentiful further north.

“We spent a lot of time traveling to where the crab were,” he said. “It made for long days, a late coming home.”

Moore’s family owned Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant in Longboat Key for 47 years.

“I don’t believe stone crab will ever be cheap like it was before, When I started in 1980, you could buy them for $4 a pound,” Moore said.

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Some crabbers left their boats tied up the last day of stone crab season rather than chasing a diminishing supply . James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

John Horne, owner of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar restaurants, has worked in the local hospitality industry for nearly 40 years and said he has slowly seen the supply of stone crab diminish during that time.

“It has been difficult to get. Every year there has been a downward trend. Every year, we have sold less and less of them,” Horne said.

Even so, Horne’s restaurants had them on the menu until recently.

“We took them off the menu right after Mother’s Day,” he said.

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The Star Fish Company had stone crab for sale on Wednesday, but supplies have sold out quickly this season. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Due to the high cost, some other restaurants dropped them from the menu several months ago.

A siege of red tide off Manatee County beaches and inland waterways between August 2018 and February 2019 caused a massive number of sea life deaths. Thousands of fish washed up on local shores, and even dolphin and sea turtles fell victim to the toxic bloom.

A sample taken at the Coquina Beach South Boat ramp on Monday found very low levels of Karenia brevis, the algae that causes a red tide, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Phil Gravinese, a post doctorate fellow at Mote Marine Laboratory, said Wednesday he has heard similar stories about declining stocks of stone crab.

In laboratory research at Mote Marine, scientists found increased mortality for sub-legal size stone crab when exposed to red tide for a nine-day period, Gravinese said.

After a few days, the crabs stopped eating, their stress levels increased and mortality eventually rose to about 40 percent.

Researchers also exposed crab larva to red tide and saw a 100 percent death rate within 48 hours, Gravinese said.

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Crabbers say the supply of stone crab was down sharply this year, and they suspect red tide was the culprit. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

“Maybe the crustacean population along the southwest Florida coast has lost some of its resiliency,” he said.

In fact, a review of FWC figures since 2015 for harvest along Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties shows a 60 percent decrease in the catch, he said, adding that he had no figures for the statewide catch.

The commercial and recreational harvest of stone crab claws in Florida closes Thursday. Stone crab season will reopen Oct. 15. The five-month closure occurs each year during the peak spawning season to help conserve Florida’s valuable stone crab resource, according to the FWC.

Commercially harvested stone crab claws may be possessed and sold during the closed season, but only if they have been placed in inventory prior to May 16 by a licensed wholesale or retail dealer.

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Crabbers say the supply of stone crab was down sharply this year, and they suspect red tide was the culprit. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Stone crab traps must be removed from the water within five days after the close of the stone crab season. Stone crab claws may not be harvested from traps pulled after the season closes.

Learn more about the stone crab harvest season by visiting MyFWC.com/Marine and then either “Recreational Regulations” or “Commercial.”

The FWC is gathering public input on the commercial and recreational stone crab fishery. Learn more at MyFWC.com/SaltwaterComments.

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