HERNANDO BEACH — Florida's commercial stone crab harvesting doesn't officially end until midnight Friday, but the season essentially has been finished for some time for Capt. Mike Birren.
Birren pulled most of his traps weeks ago because there was no point in heading two hours into the Gulf Of Mexico only to lose more money.
For the past two seasons, the fertile waters that once provided Birren and the crew of his 48-foot fishing boat, the Brandi Lee, with upward of 600 pounds of claws per trip have been in a serious slump. Nowadays, he's lucky to haul in 100 pounds.
"It's been pretty bad," Birren said last week. "Whether it was octopuses getting them or bad weather, I don't know. They just weren't there."
For Birren, who has made his living as a crabber for more than 30 years, two bad seasons in a row is practically unthinkable. He tried everything, from moving his traps farther offshore to trying different bait. His best haul was in January, when he landed 300 pounds of claws in a single haul. Most of his other outings didn't come close.
Birren's sister-in-law, Kathy Birren, who owns Hernando County's largest commercial processing facility for stone crab claws, estimates that catches are down by 40 percent over last year, and as much as 60 percent from normal harvest levels. The continuing strain on the local industry has forced several commercial boat operators to consider leaving the area to try their luck somewhere else.
"It's frustrating, because there's not much you can do to improve it," Kathy Birren said. "If the crabs aren't around to catch, you're pretty much out of luck."
Biologists who study the crustaceans say that the stone crab population tends to be cyclical. Like a number of saltwater species, variables in weather, food availability and the invasion of predators such as octopuses often cause the creatures to move from one area to another. And while Hernando County's waters may be in a lull, several other areas of the state posted respectable catches this season.
Ryan Gandy, a crustacean researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said that the smaller crab hauls in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties might be a reflection of more competition among fishermen working a specific area. In fact, he said, last year's statewide harvest of 2.7 million pounds of crab claws was well within the 10-year average. Robust years are often followed by a couple of years of declining harvests, declines that could total more than 30 percent, he said.
Gandy, however, doesn't believe that the tepid numbers necessarily show a steep dive in the stone crab population. Rather, the industry is becoming more efficient when it comes to harvesting the crustaceans, he said.
"When the number of people fishing in an area increases, it can have quite an impact on the size of individual catches," he said. "But I don't think it always means there are less crabs there."
Indeed, while some may question whether the lower numbers could be the result of lingering effects from the 2010 BP oil spill in the gulf, Gandy said he has seen no hard evidence to support that claim.
"Had that been the case, I think it would have been very noticeable," he said.
Like last year, prices for the treasured sea treat have remained uncommonly high. Tommy Shook, general manager at Frenchy's Seafood Co. in Palm Harbor, said demand never subsided, even as prices skyrocketed to the highest levels he has seen. At one point, a pound of medium claws were $18 a pound wholesale, nearly three times what they went for just three years ago.
Shook, who sells the majority of his products out of state, said his customers seldom complained about the price.
"The market never slows no matter how bad it gets," he said. "I never went one day this season with any extra."
Jim Mysliwiec, office manager at Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde, agreed that this year was "spotty."
"It started out strong, but in the middle of the season it waned and then came back strong."
For consumers, that means prices have been, and continue to be, steep. From now until the end of the season, Billy's will be selling a half-pound appetizer portion for $12.95 and an entree of 1 pound of medium claws for $25.95. That represents a big jump in price from a good harvest year, when that same entree would be priced at $19.95.
"Stone crab is in our name, so we will continue selling them to the public," Mysliwiec says of the future. "But we will have to pass along increases in prices from the fish houses."
On the retail side, the story is similar. Gib Migliano, owner of Save on Seafood in St. Petersburg, said prices were high all season long.
"The prices on mediums went down a little, but jumbos stayed high because they were scarce," he said. "We're selling larges for $25.95 per pound and jumbos for $30.95."
Two years ago, those jumbos were selling for well under $20 per pound. Still, Save On continues to sell its stock, but this may be because they are scarce.
"At those prices, the people who have money are the only ones who purchase them," Migliano said.
But Mike Birren said that higher market prices do not always make up for the lack of a catch. Expenses for fuel and labor on his boat often aren't covered when he ventures out into the gulf these days. So to cut his losses, he rigged the Brandi Lee to fish for grouper. At least it's something, he said.
"Fishing is my life, and I don't ever want to give it up," Birren said. "As for stone crabbing, I think we all just wait for it to come back. Hopefully, it will. Hopefully, it won't get any worse."
Times food critic Laura Reiley contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.