Every October, crustacean researchers, commercial anglers, Florida fish houses and seafood enthusiasts start reading the tea leaves.
We want a little rough weather, but not too much. Red Tide is not a deal breaker, but too many octopuses can really mess things up. The object of this prognostication is to anticipate the year's stone crab season, which opens today.
Sometimes, experts get it wrong.
Last year, they predicted doom and gloom, but it turned out to be the best stone crab season in a long time. This year's harvest has consumers wondering about Red Tide and sewage spills, but experts are staying positive.
Crab traps may be legally dropped on Oct. 5 and the overeager can occasionally peek in, but it's not until the afternoon of Oct. 15 when they are hauled up and we find out how things look for this most Florida of harvests.
The 2012-2013 harvest was weak (2.1 million pounds landed). Ditto the next year (1.98 million). And even the next (2.2 million). Perhaps it was all those years of disappointment that led experts last October to be pessimistic.
Turns out, the 2015-2016 landings were excellent, just shy of 3 million pounds and bringing in $32.7 million for the fishery, a record amount. Great news, right?
Not exactly. According to Ryan Gandy, a crustacean research scientist with the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg, prices went through the roof for several years with low landings, demand routinely outstripping supply. Last year, before folks knew we were looking at a bumper crop (lots of crabs, and big ones to boot), consumers were gun shy, tired of paying top dollar for our local delicacy.
This year, Gandy is cautiously optimistic. His monitoring program has traps in eight locations around the state and provides a good gauge of what is available to the fishery. They count juveniles.
"We saw a big uptick in density last year," he said. "We have not seen that same uptick this year."
That may not be bad news for the fishery, according to Karen Bell of wholesaler A.P. Bell Fish Company in Cortez. Usually stone crab prices begin where they ended the previous season.
"Last year we started out at that high price with such a huge glut," she said. "It turned a lot of people and restaurants away. The prices finally came down, but the damage had already been done. And then the fishermen weren't happy because we had to drop the prices."
According to Gandy, a big surplus at the start of last year's season meant that some fish houses stopped accepting stone crabs because there wasn't the demand.
"It's so difficult because stone crabs are a fresh product," he said. "If we could just get a steady supply."
Having purchased three times more crabs than the previous year, A.P. Bell chose to freeze 12,000 pounds.
"We don't like to freeze them," said Karen Bell, "We don't have the confidence that we'll sell them later in the season."
Most are sold here in Florida, with a fairly large number going to Las Vegas. According to Anthony Manali of Captain Anthony's on Anna Maria, about 20 percent of the season's crabs are sold in the first month, with a flurry of sales around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday. By Easter, the season's sales have slowed to a trickle, with the season officially ending May 15.
The maddening thing about stone crabs is that every season is different, Manali said. Here's what we know about this season:
• Hurricane Hermine and Hurricane Matthew churned up the water in a good way, hopefully getting crabs moving toward traps. The only downside is that foul weather slowed crabbers in dropping their traps. Manali, who has 1,700 traps, 40 percent in the bay and the rest in the gulf, said high winds kept him for days from dropping traps as quickly as he would have liked. "That will slow the catch down considerably." Thus, anticipate a slower start to the season, even if the haul is good.
• Red Tide, while unpleasant for tourists and fin fishermen, doesn't affect the quality or health of stone crabs. According to Gandy, it might even be a good thing: "Red Tide may have been pushing crabs around; they come in and feed off of the dead animals that are around."
• St. Petersburg's recent discharge of significant amounts of sewage into waterways is unlikely to affect stone crabs. Crabs are caught more than a mile out, beyond the reach of any dangerous bacteria. Because crabs are not filter feeders, says Gandy, "I wouldn't have any hesitation about consuming them."
• The season's first retail stone crabs will be available to consumers this evening. Because it's a weekend, some stores and restaurants won't have them sorted, cooked and available until Monday. Until the first boats come in, purveyors and restaurateurs are loath to set firm prices. Expect mediums around $22 per pound, larges just under $30 and jumbos under $35, but it could be a little lower.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.