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How was the stone crab season? Good in the Keys, but rough in other parts of Florida

Florida Keys and Miami fishermen fared much better than their colleagues on the west coast of the state during this year’s stone crab season, but production varied depending on where they fished in South Florida, the head of the Keys commercial fishing trade association said.

Wednesday was the last day of the eight-month season, which began in October.

“Supply was good, prices were high and demand was strong,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association.

But a persistent red tide algae bloom that plagued the Gulf Coast for much of last year all but doomed the season for commercial anglers from the southern part of the state to the Panhandle. Fishermen were hoping October’s Hurricane Michael would dissipate the red tide, but it didn’t. And, the category 5 storm significantly added to west coast anglers’ woes.

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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

“Instead, it broke it up into large clumps, pushing it further northward into Florida’s Panhandle,” Kelly said. “Red tide, loss of gear from the hurricane and inability to fish due to weather and infrastructure collapse destroyed the fishery from Crystal River through the Panhandle area.”

But, all in all, Keys fishermen had a pretty good year. Out of the 1,376 stone crab permits the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues statewide, 494 are in the Keys. And, this season, Monroe County fishermen caught 65 percent of the total harvest, Kelly said.

The official numbers won’t be tallied for a few months, but Kelly said an exceptional year for Florida commercial anglers would be about 3.4 million pounds of stone crab claws. (Stone crabbing is one of the most sustainable fishing practices. Only the claw, which the crab regenerates once it’s removed is taken. The rest of the crab is thrown back into the water) The average take is between 2.5 and 2.7 million pounds of claws.

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Stone crabs, like other crabs, regenerate their claws if they are removed. Stone crab fishermen only take the claws and throw the rest of the crab back alive. FWC

“This year, we’re cautiously optimistic that we will make 2 million pounds,” Kelly said.

Fishing boat crews this season got around $27, $23, $19 and $8.50 per pound for “colossal,” “jumbo,” large and medium claws. Consumers paid more. At Key Largo Fisheries, a popular restaurant and fish market in the Upper Keys, colossal claws were priced at $42.50 per pound, jumbos were going for $39.99, larges for $31 and mediums $19.95.

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Cracked stone crabs are set on a plate in a South Florida kitchen. Photo by David Goodhue/dgoodhue@flkeysreporter.com

Even in the Keys, the relative good fortune was not spread evenly, according to Kelly. Upper Keys fishermen, and those in Miami, as well as Key West crews, did much better than their counterparts in the Middle Keys and Marathon, Kelly said. This is a lingering consequence from Hurricane Irma, which crossed the middle to lower end of the island chain as a powerful Category 4 storm in September 2017.

“Marathon didn’t fare so well. Many of the fishermen there fish westward on in the Gulf of Mexico as much as 40 to 50 miles,” Kelly said. “Hurricane Irma scarified much of the bottom in the area to hard rock, and stone crabs like to live in the mud. No mud, no place to dig a hole, so they moved elsewhere.”

What of the outlook for next season? Kelly thinks South Florida anglers should expect around the same if circumstances allow:

“Not a rosy one, but barring any tropical storms, hurricanes and prolonged red tides, and with well-researched management techniques based on science, we hope to maintain a healthy and sustainable fishery.”

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