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As oil leak continues in the gulf, stone crabbers end season with uncertainty

ON THE GULF OF MEXICO — Ryan Wagner, barefoot, Camel between his lips, Gators cap on his head, guides his boat alongside a muck-covered buoy. Attached to the buoy is a rope and at the bottom of the rope is a trap and inside the trap is the reason Wagner got up early to fuel his 32-foot Sabalo, gulp some coffee and hit the water.

Menippe mercenaria.

Stone crab.

At $10.50 a pound for large claws, a good day of crabbing can fetch Wagner $500.

Alas, crabbing has been slow this year. Worse, as the seven-month season comes to a close today, a no-end-in-sight oil leak brings all sorts of questions for crabbers in local waters.

Not the least of them: Could this be the last stone crab season?

Wagner, 39, has run through the scenarios. If oil spoils the fisheries of Louisiana and Mississippi, would those men pack up and come down here, crowding little guys out of the market? If oil makes it into the loop current, could it spin off and damage local ecosystems? Could hurricanes splatter tar balls on our beaches? Will depleted gulf fish mean even more fishing regulations to an industry required to check in with the government before heading to open water?

"The fact is," he says, "we don't know."

Here stands a man, bare feet on boat deck, toiling against uncertainty and a black cloud of death. The only thing he knows for sure is that today, as he drags in his traps, there will be crabs.

"All right," Wagner calls back to his mate. "Let the crabbing begin."

• • •

Maine has lobster. Kansas has barbecue and Texas has T-bones.

In Florida, thank God, we have stone crab.

Before the 2008 World Series, Gov. Charlie Crist made a bet with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. If the Tampa Bay Rays won, Rendell had to ship south a Philly cheesesteak and soft pretzels. If the Philadelphia Phillies won, Crist had to ship north oranges and stone crab.

They are unique in that trappers harvest only the claws, and stone crabs can regenerate claws, making them sustainable. We eat them with butter or mustard sauce, or olive oil, lime and cracked black pepper. We eat them naked, on ice. We pay $55 for two pounds of large claws.

Legend has it that a Jewish immigrant from New York named Joe Weiss was ordered by his doctor to Florida in 1913. He opened a restaurant on Biscayne Bay. In 1921, a Harvard ichthyologist studying marine life hauled in a sack full of ugly crabs with claws strong enough to slice through a man's finger like butter. Joe boiled them and served them with coleslaw and secured the stone crab a spot among iconic Florida imagery, with flamingos and orange trees. His place, Joe's Stone Crab, still hums.

Even before that, stone crab was showing up on menus around Tampa Bay.

You could find them at the hotel Bonhomie in Pass-a-Grille in 1908. Or on the Thanksgiving Dinner menu at Hotel Pillet and Restaurant on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, in 1928.

"Truly, the history of the stone crab and the history of Florida … are significantly entwined," wrote Bruce Henry in Esquire in 1939.

In 1985, fishermen harvested 2.1 million pounds of claws. By the mid 1990s, that number had surged to 3.3 million.

That demand is what led Ryan Wagner in the mid 1990s to start crabbing, then, seven years ago, to buy his own boat and call himself Captain.

• • •

Wagner pulls the Fish Taxi alongside another buoy. Tom Petty sings Into the Great Wide Open as Wagner's mate, Doug Smith, catches the rope with a hook then lugs the trap onto the deck. Inside: two blue crabs, two spider crabs and a stone crab.

The two find all sorts of things in the traps. Hermit crabs, peppermint shrimp, leopard crabs. Wagner once found a $5 bill.

"We figured somebody took our crabs," he says, "and wanted to pay us."

Wagner runs charter trips in the summer and fishes for grouper in the winter and spring. But each year, it seems, new fishing regulations have made it harder to make a living on the water.

"The first year I had my boat was the most money I ever made," he says. "They just keep taking away and taking away."

Shortening seasons, lowering quotas, stricter regulations.

"We used to sit at the bar and talk about what we caught," he says. "Now we just complain about what they're going to do to us next."

That's why the news reports about the BP spill in the gulf make him so mad, the tar balls washing up on Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores in Alabama and Perdido Key in Florida. He sings a refrain heard among lots of fishermen around here. It seems fishing is regulated more than oil drilling.

"I've got a buddy who works on the oil rigs, and he laughs at us," Wagner says. "He says, 'We make our own rules.' "

Smith pulls in the last trap of the day and drops a couple of claws into a 5-gallon bucket. Wagner heads back to the dock with 15 pounds of clean, delicious Florida stone crab, the last of the season. Get them while you can.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

As oil leak continues in the gulf, stone crabbers end season with uncertainty 05/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 4:25pm]

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