TARPON SPRINGS — Longtime fishmonger Brandon Lindsey stepped outside the steamy receiving room at Pelican Point Seafood and banged a small stone crab claw against a metal pylon to crack the hard shell. Tasting the meat appraisingly, he nodded and pronounced curtly, "good."
It was the first stone crab of the season, which opened Monday. By day's end, fishing boats heaped with traps were racing shoreward from the Gulf of Mexico. Lindsey's small claw is called a "floater" and others of its size with scant claw meat are cheap, likely to start retailing today at Pelican Point for $5.99 a pound. Medium claws will likely to go for $15.99, large for $18.99 and jumbo for $23.99 — making stone crabs one of the state's most expensive seafood delicacies.
By 5 p.m. three boats had unloaded their prizes at the seafood market, the first a 42-pound catch, the second at 56 pounds and the third at 153 pounds.
Once that 153 pounds of claws gets boiled, iced and sorted into sizes, it's unclear what boat captain Ron Engle will take away as this year's first stone crab payday. But his assessment about the opening of the season?
"He said his first three lines of traps were pretty good and his last two lines really stank," said Pelican Point assistant manager Amy Wirtz.
Not exactly an enthusiastic summary, but the consensus in Tarpon Springs on Monday evening was that this season opened with more promise than last. In a great year, each trap can yield two pounds of meat. "If they're getting one pound a trap right now, that's great," Wirtz said.
According to Amanda Nally, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, last year's season brought in nearly 2.6 million pounds of stone crab claws, despite being a disappointing harvest year in the Tampa Bay area. The industry grossed $23.5 million statewide. By comparison, Florida's oyster industry brought in the same number of pounds, valued only at $7.4 million. Meanwhile soft and hard shell blue crabs in the state yielded 10.1 million pounds with a collective value of $12 million.
Before boats started coming in Monday afternoon, seafood retailers and wholesalers from Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde to Madeira Beach Fish House and Save on Seafood in St. Petersburg tried to read the signs.
"A couple guys were in today telling me that things looked real good. One guy said he had 15 crabs in one trap," said Save On owner Gib Migliano on Friday. "I will tell you that so far they're saying it looks real good. But in the 35 years I've been here, I've heard that several times."
Jim Mysliwiec, office manager of Billy's Stone Crab, says gas prices might have made early predictions a little trickier this year. Crabbers are allowed to drop their traps five days before the official launch of the season, but, he says, high fuel prices may have made commercial crabbers reluctant to ride out and monitor traps.
"I talked to (owner) Billy Moore on his way down to Everglades City Monday morning. He's been in touch with some of the fish houses, and what he's heard is that prices are going to be a little bit above what they were last year. But right now it's a guessing game — a waiting game."
Theresa Bert, a stone crab biologist in St. Petersburg at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, agrees, saying predictions are largely fruitless.
"One of the things I'm searching for right now is how to predict factors that affect a fishery so we can predict whether a fishery will be good. That's our ultimate goal, predictability."
That said, she is willing to enumerate the factors that affect the stone crab harvest. Wind is a good thing because it stirs up the bottom and agitates the crabs, getting them to move and hopefully scuttle into the traps. Exceptionally cold years can make the crabs lethargic and unlikely to hop into the traps. And the prevalence of octopi is a bad sign, as these predators can decimate the population by slinking right into traps and bellying up to the buffet. She cautions that a season might be good in Homosassa but bad in the Keys, or can start strong and then peter out.
There are a lot of variables.
Still, she says, "One thing we do know is that between Oct. 15 and 31 is the high-catch part of the season. It's the middle of their reproductive season so males are moving around trying to find females, and they encounter traps. They tend to catch the most crabs at the beginning of the season and a higher fraction of males.
While Lindsey and the rest of Pelican Point's team awaited the final boat of the day, they hovered over a 35 gallon pot: Eight minutes in the boiling water, then a batch of claws is lifted in a puff of steam and lowered into a nearby ice bath for 20 minutes, shovelfuls of ice mounded atop the shiny orange shells. They were sorted, weighed and bagged in red mesh, ready for the first day of retail sales. And just before 6 p.m., paydirt rolled in: Michael Fox's Bite Me Too motored up to the dock, 268 pounds of stone crab claws ready to be cooked and sorted.
"We did more today than any day last year," Fox said.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley.