With the sun rising above the tree line, Harold Toms knows he's getting a late start. Standing on the seawall above his fishing boat on a recent morning, Toms picks up the pace, sliding crab trap after crab trap down a dock roller for his crewman, Skip Roberts, to stack. Toms normally has two helpers. But with a recent drop-off in the haul of stone crab claws, he's down to just one. After 26 years as a stone crabber, he knows the business well. Some years are great; others are a financial bust. This year, he's not sure what to expect.
"If it stays warm and we get a front every couple of weeks that's not too cold, it could be a real good season," Toms said as he wiped his hands of residue from his morning chores. "But if we have a nasty winter for a long time, it could be rough for us."
That's the way it is for the fishermen who go after one of Florida's great seafood delicacies. Though the seven-month stone crab season can provide a bounty of succulent claws for eager fans, it's an industry that is filled with uncertainty, said Kathy Birren, owner of Hernando Beach Seafood, the county's largest commercial fishing marina and commercial seafood processing center.
"Right now, there's more demand than supply, and prices are better than last year," Birren said last week. "But that can change very quickly depending on the economy and how many claws are available on the market."
Since the opening of stone crab season Oct. 15, Birren said, she has been getting orders from distributors that she often struggles to fill. The early weeks of the season are generally strong, with plenty of claws to go around.
Considered one of the state's prime stone crab grounds, more than 110,000 pounds of claws were harvested last year in waters off the Hernando County coast, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Only Citrus, Lee and Collier counties recorded higher yields.
Normally, stone crab catches have everything to do with weather and tides. But Birren suspects that lingering effects from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and recent red tide outbreaks may have contributed to lower yields the past couple of years.
"Back in 2008 and 2009, we were getting about 800 pounds per boat every day," she said. "These days, you're not sure of what they're going to be bringing back — 200 pounds or 1,500. It's all out of whack."
For many fishermen who work the Gulf Of Mexico year-round, stone crab season is something of a godsend during a time of year when long-line fishing can be hit or miss.
"If you own a boat, you need something to feed you when you don't have anything else," said Toms, 59, who owns the Jenna Lee, a 34-foot vessel. Several times a week, he carries buckets of pigs' feet, mullet and ladyfish out 20 miles in the gulf in order to bait the 1,165 traps he maintains.
But crabbing is a low-profit venture for many small-boat owners. In addition to fuel and maintenance for their vessels, they must buy commercial fishing permits, commercial boat licenses, and they are required to pay a 50-cent licensing fee to the state annually for every trap they tag.
Birren, who acts as a broker for the nine crab boats that permanently dock at her business, said that successful catches often depend on good timing.
Wind from an approaching cold front is a good thing because it stirs up the sea bottom and agitates the crabs so they are more apt to move into the traps. However, exceptionally cold weather can make the crabs lethargic and unwilling to feed. It can also cause the claw meat to stick to the outer shell, making it virtually unsalable, Birren said.
Once fishermen deliver claws to Birren's dock, the claws are cooked, graded by size and resold to wholesalers, most of whom are from outside of the county. Local retail outlets include Trader Bay Seafood in Hernando Beach and Whitney and Son Seafoods in Hudson.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 75 percent of all stone crab claws harvested in Florida stay in the state.
Birren said that wholesale crab claw prices currently range between $9 and $15 per pound, depending on grade.
"The price is always fluctuating because that's the nature of seafood," she said. "If the price holds up, it'll be a good thing for the boat captain. They've had it rough the past couple of years."
Stone crab season runs through May 15.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.