Although Florida's stone crab season will not officially end until May 15, talk to any fisherman along the Nature Coast who makes a living harvesting the crustaceans from the Gulf of Mexico and you'll find that the season effectively ended months ago.
These days, you're more likely to see incoming fishing vessels loaded with empty traps than ones filled with succulent stone crab claws, said Kathy Birren, owner of Hernando Beach Seafood Co. In fact, this year's stone crab season, which opened in October, has been pretty much a bust from start to finish, Birren said. Catches at her docks are down more than 60 percent from normal.
"It's the worst year I've ever seen," Birren said. "Some of the guys gave up a long time ago and just decided it was too expensive to fill their gas tanks to go out and bring in 50 pounds of crab claws."
Birren, who with her husband, Ron, owns five fishing boats, as well as the facility where nearly all of Hernando County's stone crab claws are processed for wholesale, said the industry was never able to climb out of a slump that began last fall with an unusually large influx of octopi, which feed off the trapped crabs.
But even after the octopus problem abated in early January, daily catches continued to dwindle, despite the arrival of favorable cold fronts that normally cause stone crabs to feed more.
As a result of the gulfwide shortage, stone crab prices ratcheted up to the stratospheric levels, with jumbo claws recently retailing for as much as $90 a pound, compared to the $60 range in previous years. Even medium-sized claws, which used to retail for under $20, now cost between $30 and $35 a pound in many seafood establishments.
The seafood delicacy may be in short supply, but wholesalers like Tommy Shook, general manager at Frenchy's Seafood Co. in Palm Harbor, said they've had little trouble finding buyers, as long as customers are willing to pay the price.
"Some people will buy them no matter how ridiculous the price is," Shook said. "That's how popular they are with some people."
More than 110,000 pounds of claws were harvested in 2011 off the Hernando County coast, considered one of the state's prime stone crab grounds, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Only Citrus, Lee and Collier counties recorded higher yields.
Birren said that many fishermen suspect the downturn could be related to the 2010 BP oil spill in the gulf. But Ryan Gandy, a research scientist who studies crustaceans at the commission's research institute in St. Petersburg, disagrees, saying the worst stone crab seasons on record have occurred at times when there were no oil spills.
"We've seen nothing that indicates that the spill impacted stone crab populations in that area of the gulf," Gandy said.
More likely, he said, factors like warm weather and the lingering effects of Red Tide have had more of an impact.
"These are animals that are migratory, and their normal cycles can be disrupted by a lot of factors," Gandy said. "Next year they could very well come back as strong as before."
Because a large percentage of Hernando's long-line fishing industry relies on stone crab season to bring in income during the slack winter months, Birren worries that this year's slow season might be more than some can endure financially.
"It's been hard on them the past few years, and losing that really hurts them," she said. "It will be felt around here for a long time to come."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.