HERNANDO BEACH — With the holidays approaching, demand for Florida stone crabs is on the rise.
Unfortunately, so is the price.
The problem is the supply of the Gulf of Mexico delicacy is down dramatically in some areas because of balmy weather, warm water and the crustacean's fickle life cycle.
Then there's the octopus.
Some crabbers say as many as half of their traps are coming up empty, save for the remnants of dead crabs. That's because the marauding tentacled beasts have moved in to stake their claim.
Kathy Birren, owner of the Hernando Beach Seafood Co. in Hernando County, said that while intrusion by the eight-legged creatures has always been a problem for trappers, she estimated that stone crab harvesting is down about 80 percent from usual this time of year.
"Normally, we get between 400 and 500 pounds a day per boat, but these days we're lucky to get 50 pounds," said Birren, whose company is the largest processer of wholesale seafood in Hernando County. "I've never seen it this bad."
Birren said that stone crab season started fairly strong in October and continued so through Thanksgiving. But three weeks ago, her boat crews began coming up mostly empty-handed.
"It's very disappointing," Birren said. "These guys work hard, and when they come back with little to show for it, they get very depressed."
Pinpointing the exact cause is difficult, said Ryan Gandy, a crustacean research biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Crabbing areas north of Sarasota County where water temperatures haven't cooled much and waters have remained calm seem to have suffered most from the rapid octopus explosion.
While environmental factors could be to blame, normal fluctuations in the numbers of octopuses and stone crabs and what they feed on also play a role, Gandy said.
"Stuff in the gulf likes to move around, and normal cycles can be disrupted," he said. "Predators go where food is easiest to find. Right now, the octopuses are winning. If another predator arrives to feed off them, or a couple of strong cold fronts move in, then things could change quickly."
However, biology doesn't help much for those looking to fill up on what is traditionally one of Florida's most treasured wintertime delicacies.
Tommy Shook, general manager at Frenchy's Seafood Co. in Palm Harbor, which ships crab claws to restaurants in Chicago and New York, said he's scrambling to fill even partial orders in time for the holidays.
"Everyone I know is having a tough time finding stone crab claws right now," Shook said. "I could have sold 2,500 pounds of stone crabs this week if I could get them."
Shook, who also supplies his company's five seafood restaurants in Pinellas County, said customers are beginning to feel the pain of the stone crab claw shortage. Retail prices have risen more than 30 percent over the past three weeks, with medium claws selling at $15 per pound.
However, not every restaurant is feeling the pinch.
Jim Mysliwiec, office manager of Billy's Stone Crab in St. Petersburg, said he buys from a vast network of suppliers throughout the state.
"If we can't get them one place, we go elsewhere," Mysliwiec said. "But that's the nature of the business."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.