Two days into Florida's stone crab season, it already looks grim. Few crabs plus huge demand equals stratospheric prices.
For now, retail prices may hover around $15 per pound for mediums, $30 per pound for jumbos, said Tommy Shook, general manager of Frenchy's Seafood. In a good year, mediums might start out around $8 pounds, jumbos $20.
Why? It's a perfect storm.
Last year's terrible season meant that many part-time crabbers didn't even drop traps this year, forgoing the season altogether, according to Matt Loder Sr., CEO of Crabby Bill's restaurants.
"Take all those part-time crabbers out of the equation and a lot fewer crabs will come in," he said.
That number is further squeezed by the federal shutdown. Every crab trap requires a tag — those crabbers late to get their tags may have been shut out of the season's launch.
In Everglades City, many professional crabbers went on strike as the season opened Tuesday and refused to leave the docks. They were offered only $7.50 for boat price for mediums, so they decided to park it in the hopes dockside pricing will change.
"If you're a crabber in Homosassa Springs and you hear the crabbers down south aren't going out crabbing," Loder said, "you think you should be getting more for your stuff."
Thus, Homosassa Springs prices are through the roof. For those crabbers in Everglades City, it's a game of chicken: The crabs sitting out in traps right now have a couple days worth of food to eat. After that, they start dying. Shook suspects that some of what's motivating the strike is that crabbers went to take a peek in the traps. A terrible haul at a low price doesn't cover the cost of gas and labor.
Another price driver is the big purchasers. The majority of crabs, especially the bigger ones, are caught before Christmas. Major players like Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach (the top buyer of claws) need to put a lot in the freezer swiftly for the rest of the year, so there's a rush to buy. And there's just not much crab being brought in.
Weather is the likely reason numbers are looking low so far.
"We've had chamber-of-commerce weather," Shook said. "That's not good for crabs. They need it more churned up to come out, either a cold front or a storm. I can see the bottom in 50 feet of water right now."
Florida's recreational and commercial stone crab claw harvests continue through May 15. A strong season would yield some 3 million pounds of claws; last year just over 2 million pounds were harvested.
Rob George, president of the Crab Broker in Las Vegas, is waiting this year. "I talked to my supplier last night. He got in a couple hundred pounds at best," he said. "He told me that he'd talked to a lot of people yesterday up and down the coast, and catch is really bad. He said for now the prices are just stupid and that my best bet is to sit back and wait."
Stone crab represents a tiny fraction of George's sales, and so far none of his national customers have put in orders.
"For every 100 pounds of stone crabs I sell, I sell 10,000 pounds of fresh red king crab. Stone crabs are a pain in the a--, but if you're a restaurant in Florida you've got to have them."
Frenchy's sells stone crabs in Tampa Bay and to wholesalers across the country. Although Shook suspects some of those customers will back out and buy different products (like George's red king crab), he said he still has more orders than he can fill. And for events like the 29th annual stone crab festival Oct. 26-27 at the original Frenchy's Clearwater location, these high prices will have to be passed along to diners.
The stone crab business is often feast or famine, Shook said, adding that we could go from no crabs to a glut of crabs, despite all these factors.
"I'd rather see a nice, steady price," he said. "I'm hoping it won't keep going up."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.