Special Reports

Oil spill could make next stone crab season worse

BRADENTON — It wasn’t a good year for stone crab fishermen in the area, but they know things could get a lot worse before they get better.

The stone crab fishing season ended May 15, and profits were down. Walter Bell, president of Bradenton’s AP Bell Fish Company, said weather was a killer. Now he and others are hoping the oil spill doesn’t make things even worse next season, which begins in October.

“We had too much cold and windy weather, which kept the boats in,” Bell said. “We had a good strong market all year, but no production. The weather kept the boys from pulling their traps, which was a big part of it. If we had good weather, we would’ve had a good season.

“It seems like there were more good crabs in this area than any other place. They didn’t produce much south and not much north. There seemed to be quite a few crabs right here in Manatee County, but we just had the coldest and windiest weather in years, maybe the worst ever. We went from winter to summer with no spring.”

Like most people in the business, Bell is keeping a watchful eye on the oil spill out in the Gulf of Mexico and hoping it can be contained.

“With the spill, you never know. If it comes, obviously it will make things much worse. We are just hoping it doesn’t. But this winter things were bad because of the weather,” Bell said.

Danny Barrett, who has worked the docks in Manatee County for 26-plus years, including the last 18 for A.P. Bell, echoes similar thoughts and is on edge like most in the business about the oil spill.

He knows it was a rough season for the stone crab trappers, who have quite a bit of expenses to meet with their traps, bait and fuel and other items.

“Things run in cycles. This year the gulf was better than the bay, and then you had the weather,” Barrett said. “(The trappers) were bringing in about 100 to 200 pounds a day on good days, but in the past I’ve seen them bring in 1,500 pounds in a day. That just didn’t happen this year.”

Karen Bell, office manager at AP Bell, said stone crab claw production this past season for her company was down about 50 percent. Bell said the company normally processes about 60,000 pounds a season, and this year it was about 30,000. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture’s most recent numbers, the industry processed more than 3 million pounds statewide in 2008, for a dockside value of about $18.8 million.

The quality of what they brought in also wasn’t what it has been in past years, and that again was due to the weather, according to Barrett.

“When it gets too cold, the meat sticks to the shell, and a lot of times when that happens they won’t even bring them in,” Barrett said. “It stayed cold a lot longer than most years, and it seemed to drag on.”

The quality of the claw, which is the only part of the crab that is eaten, is based on whether it is solid. They are graded out as large (jumbo), medium and floaters, which mean the claw has less meat and more air.

“A lot of seafood places around here make quite a bit of money on stone crabs,” Barrett said. “I was getting a couple of hundred pounds of floaters a day for a while. We sell them for $5 per pound, the medium are $10 a pound and the jumbo or large are $14 per pound.”

“They went pretty quick this year once we got them in, and we weren’t always able to meet the demands from retailers and wholesalers. What’s going to happen next year, we just don’t know until they start bringing them in.

“Everybody is a little bit nervous because of the oil spill. If the spill comes around, I think they will cut the fishing and crabbing off first.”

The improved weather toward the end of the season helped a lot of the trappers bring in more stone crabs. Some trappers that were bringing in 30 to 40 pounds a day upped their total to about 200 during the last days of the season, Barrett said.

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