How stone crab season survived a hurricane

Stone crabs are captured in traps, then returned to the water alive after fishers harvest legal-size claws.
Stone crabs are captured in traps, then returned to the water alive after fishers harvest legal-size claws.

Stone crab commercial anglers were spared the loss of traps suffered by the Florida spiny lobster fishing industry when Hurricane Irma stormed through the Keys Sept. 10, striking about a month into the season.

The lobster season ended for many before it really had much of a chance to begin.

But for those who fish both stone crabs and lobster, high market prices for stone crabs and steady production this season, which ends this week, was what they needed to stay afloat after Irma. The hurricane had displaced or destroyed anywhere from half to a third of the 350,000 lobster traps fished in the Keys during the season that runs from Aug. 6 to March 31.

"It wasn't a great season, and it wasn't a terrible season," George Niles, Lower Keys commercial trap fisherman said about the seven-month stone crab season, which ends Wednesday. "Everybody needed a good price after Hurricane Irma."

That's not to say that stone crab fishing wasn't affected by the Category 4 storm. Powerful waves and winds ripped up the bay bottom, disturbing the habitat for the prized crabs, which are harvested for their claws only. After one claw is taken, fishermen release the crabs, which live to regenerate the removed claw.

"Irma did change the landscape and scarified much of the bay bottom adjacent to the Florida Keys," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. "Stone crabs are burrowing animals, and the change in their essential fish habitat altered their behavior patterns, lowering production."

Ryan Gandy, a leading crab biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said there were regional shortages near shore, but fishermen who ventured farther out to sea fared well this season.

"The storm drove crabs far off shore, and those fishing operations that could fish far off shore 20 to 50 miles did well," Gandy said.

Traps must be removed within five days after the season ends, and no crab claws can be harvested in those pulled traps.

"Commercially harvested stone crabs 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 wholesaler or retailer," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said in a statement.

State officials haven't tabulated the total haul of claws for the season, or prices.

Stone crabs are harvested only for their claws. The crab is thrown back in the water and the claw regenerates. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. Miami Herald File

But like Niles said about action in the Lower Keys, Tom Hill, owner and manager of Key Largo Fisheries, reported it could have been better. He had a successful season nonetheless. His fishermen worked a little harder than normal to to bring crabs back to the docks, but they were out there, he said.

"Anyone who wanted stone crabs could find them," Hill said. "There's stone crabs out there if someone is looking for them."

For retail, the price fluctuated this season for Hill's business, from $18 per pound on the low end to up to $30 a pound on the high end.

"Eighteen dollars wasn't very long," Hill said. "As soon as the market revealed there wasn't much product, the price went up."

Niles said fishermen were being paid on average about $15 a pound for medium claws, $20 for large, $28 for jumbo claws and around $32 for "colossal."

"The prices were as good as they've ever been," Niles said.

In Marathon, Gary Graves, owner of Keys Fisheries restaurant and seafood market and manager of its fishing operations, said a preliminary look at his numbers shows this season was about average compared to previous ones.

"Looking at our 10-average at the end of May, our production in South Florida is right on target," said Graves, who's been in the industry for more than 50 years. "Some years are better than others, that's just fishing."

Stone crabs are harvested almost exclusively in Florida -- mostly from Key West to Sarasota. The Keys bring in anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the haul out of the 17 counties in the state where claws are commercially harvested. Most of the claws served in Miami-Dade County at restaurants including Joe's Stone Crab on South Beach, for example, come from the Keys. Collier County on the west coast is also a major supplier.

Stone crab claws rank only second to spiny lobsters to the Florida Keys commercial fishing industry. Statewide, the claws bring in about $30 million a year to Florida docks.

According to FWC data available for the 2018 calendar year, which Gandy said are not final, Keys fishermen have harvested around 291,190 pounds of claws since January, earning an estimated $5.1 million.

"Current landings are not accurate and will not finalize for several months, but even though the catch has been reported by fishers to be lower than previous years," Gandy said, "The price of the crabs was good, which offset the low supply for many operations."