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What will this year's stone crab season bring? It's complicated

Today, hundreds of fishing boats heaped with traps will race shoreward from the Gulf of Mexico with the season's opening day bounty of stone crabs, one of Florida's highest-grossing fisheries.

So, as the boats head toward shore, seafood wholesalers, retailers and stone crab enthusiasts engage in a bit of prognostication about what this season may bring. Will there be lots? And what will they cost?

It's complicated.

Last year, the stone crab season set a new record: More than $31 million worth of crab claws were pulled from Florida waters from Oct. 15 to May 15.

But before you start melting celebratory butter, that record was not a good one for Florida diners. The record just means that crabs cost more last year; yields were nearly at a record low, said Ryan Gandy, a crustacean researcher with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg.

The stone cold fact about stone crabs: Demand exceeds supply. Landings of stone crabs last year were 2.2 million pounds — the only worse year in the past decade was the previous season, with just under 2 million pounds landed. A decent year historically is a landing of more than 3 million pounds of claws (one claw is removed, and crabs are returned alive to the water).

Gandy, whose group runs eight trap lines throughout the fishery from Steinhatchee down to Key West, said he has seen a slight increase in their catch per trap. This is what gives them a sense for how the population is doing.

"We're starting to see some higher numbers coming in, so we're thinking there's some population recovery. To the north, we're seeing some larger crabs, but we won't know what it looks like until they start pulling traps."

Crab season is about more than just the robustness of the population.

On the one hand, recent poor yields have meant part-time or less committed crabbers have found new work, so fewer boats have gone out.

"It's not like years ago where I could call and say I need 300 pounds," said Steve Fennell, general manager of Billy's Stone Crab in Tierra Verde. "There just aren't as many people fishing them."

He cites increased regulations (each trap has to be tagged) and routine losses (crabbers lose 50 percent of their traps in an average year, each costing between $25 and $30) as reasons there are fewer crabbers. And while Billy's has stone crabs every day for the full six months of season, Fennell now has to drive up and down the coast chasing product. He said, for the past three years, mediums averaged $19 per pound wholesale.

On the other hand, this season's low fuel prices may mean more trips out to traps, and more trips mean more crabs. But if we add an anatomically complicated third hand into the mix, local pricing and access are impacted adversely by markets like New York City and Las Vegas where buyers are willing to pay top dollar.

The takeaway? A Florida stone crab diaspora means we're cracking few claws here in the Sunshine State.

Save On Seafood owner Gib Migliano said there's another complication to the local stone crab market. Crabbers are now using the Internet to sell their crab claws directly to consumers, much like Maine lobsters, cutting out middlemen like him altogether. This may mean there are good deals to be had online, but he cautions consumers that some of these cooking outfits may not be inspected and licensed facilities (stone crabs are not sold uncooked).

Migliano said there's always a hot market for jumbo and colossal claws from the nation's fine-dining restaurants, and that medium claws, around 3 ounces, are priced conservatively enough that retail consumers buy them. Large claws, 3.2 ounces, have been $7 or $8 more per pound in the past couple years and, thus, a harder sell. He aims to bring that price down this season.

But what the haul will be like, and thus the pricing, hinges on one more thing: the weather.

This time of year is the middle of the crabs' reproductive season, with males cruising around trying to find mates. How much they move around depends on the weather.

"They won't crawl if it's clear water; they like it murked up," Fennell said. "You need fronts to come through and stir up the water."

We're in luck, Gandy said: "We've got some wind coming here this week, and it's going to be a little nasty this weekend."

So, we need nasty, but not too nasty. Really rough weather destroys gear and keeps crabbers from going out.

"Knock on wood, we haven't seen any of that because of that strong El Niño," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. He anticipates a stronger season this year, which may lead to some softening of prices. But don't get your hopes too high.

"Because it's a sustainable fishery and a delicacy, there's always been a strong demand for the product. It's never been a bargain item."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

PRICE: The season's first retail stone crabs will be available to consumers Friday. Until the first boats come in tonight with crabs, purveyors and restaurateurs are loath to set firm prices. Ward's Seafood in Clearwater said that last season ended with mediums at $22.99 per pound, larges at $30 and jumbos at $35. Gib Migliano at Save On Seafood in St. Petersburg hopes to bring the discrepancy between the price for medium and large claws down this year (the market for jumbo and colossal claws remains high, largely from high-end restaurants). The season ends May 15.

HOW TO EAT: When buying retail, stone crabs are always sold cooked and can be served cold, traditionally dipped in a mustard sauce or heated and dipped in melted butter. To heat cooked claws, plunge them into boiling water for a few minutes or steam. Do not cook for long or they will get rubbery and might stick to the shell.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recommends that fresh-cooked claws be stored for three to four days packed in ice or in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Claws that are free from cracks in the shell can be frozen for up to six months. Thaw them in the refrigerator for 14 to 18 hours depending on size. Do not run water over them to thaw, or they will lose flavor.

ANNUAL CRAB FESTS: Frenchy's 31st Annual Stone Crab Weekend is Oct. 23 and 24 in front of Frenchy's Original Café at 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach. In addition to the fresh-off-the-boat claws, the party features food and drink specials, live music on stage, kids' activities and raffles. For more information, go to stonecrabweekend.com.

The 22nd Annual Crab Fest is Oct. 22 to 25 at Cooters Raw Bar & Restaurant, 423 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater. The event features stone crab, king crab and Dungeness crab at reduced prices plus live music under the big tent. For more information, call (727) 462-2668 or go to cooters.com.

The lowdown on stone crabs

PRICE: The season's first retail stone crabs will be available to consumers Friday. Until the first boats come in tonight with crabs, purveyors and restaurateurs are loath to set firm prices. Ward's Seafood in Clearwater said that last season ended with mediums at $22.99 per pound, larges at $30 and jumbos at $35. Gib Migliano at Save On Seafood in St. Petersburg hopes to bring the discrepancy between the price for medium and large claws down this year (the market for jumbo and colossal claws remains high, largely from high-end restaurants). The season ends May 15.

HOW TO EAT: For retail sale, stone crabs are always cooked and can be served cold, traditionally dipped in a mustard sauce, or heated and dipped in melted butter. To heat cooked claws, plunge them into boiling water for a few minutes or steam. Do not cook for long or they will get rubbery and might stick to the shell.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recommends that fresh-cooked claws be stored for three to four days packed in ice or in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Claws that are free from cracks in the shell can be frozen for up to six months. Thaw them in the refrigerator for 14 to 18 hours depending on size. Do not run water over them to thaw, or they will lose flavor.

ANNUAL CRAB FESTS: Frenchy's 31st Annual Stone Crab Weekend is Oct. 23 and 24 in front of Frenchy's Original Café at 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach. In addition to the fresh-off-the-boat claws, the party features food and drink specials, live music on stage, kids' activities and raffles. For more information, go to stonecrabweekend.com.

The 22nd Annual Crab Fest is Oct. 22 to 25 at Cooters Raw Bar & Restaurant, 423 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater. The event features stone crab, king crab and Dungeness crab at reduced prices plus live music under the big tent. For more information, call (727) 462-2668 or go to cooters.com.

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PRICE: The season's first retail stone crabs will be available to consumers Friday. Until the first boats come in tonight with crabs, purveyors and restaurateurs are loath to set firm prices. Ward's Seafood in Clearwater said that last season ended with mediums at $22.99 per pound, larges at $30 and jumbos at $35. Gib Migliano at Save On Seafood in St. Petersburg hopes to bring the discrepancy between the price for medium and large claws down this year (the market for jumbo and colossal claws remains high, largely from high-end restaurants). The season ends May 15.

HOW TO EAT: When buying retail, stone crabs are always sold cooked and can be served cold, traditionally dipped in a mustard sauce or heated and dipped in melted butter. To heat cooked claws, plunge them into boiling water for a few minutes or steam. Do not cook for long or they will get rubbery and might stick to the shell.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recommends that fresh-cooked claws be stored for three to four days packed in ice or in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Claws that are free from cracks in the shell can be frozen for up to six months. Thaw them in the refrigerator for 14 to 18 hours depending on size. Do not run water over them to thaw, or they will lose flavor.

ANNUAL CRAB FESTS: Frenchy's 31st Annual Stone Crab Weekend is Oct. 23 and 24 in front of Frenchy's Original Café at 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach. In addition to the fresh-off-the-boat claws, the party features food and drink specials, live music on stage, kids' activities and raffles. For more information, go to stonecrabweekend.com.

The 22nd Annual Crab Fest is Oct. 22 to 25 at Cooters Raw Bar & Restaurant, 423 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater. The event features stone crab, king crab and Dungeness crab at reduced prices plus live music under the big tent. For more information, call (727) 462-2668 or go to cooters.com.

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What will this year's stone crab season bring? It's complicated 10/14/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2015 9:50pm]
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