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STONE CRAB OUTLOOK MURKY

As a new season starts today, officials say almost anything will be better than last year.

The parade of boats heading out to stone crab hunting grounds in the Gulf of Mexico has been growing steadily for two weeks.

What they will find - and how much a pound of jumbo claws will cost - remains something of a mystery.

One thing is certain this season, which starts today: Almost anything will be an improvement over last year, which industry officials described as one of the most dismal seasons in memory.

Hit by bad weather, smaller than usual crabs and a massive infiltration of trap-raiding octopuses, trappers barely got by.

"A lot of people got very frustrated last year because the stone crab season never really got off the ground here," said Kathy Birren, owner of Hernando Beach Seafood, the county's largest commercial fishing marina and commercial seafood processing center.

"Some of them have told me that if they have another one like (last season), they'll be done," she said.

Although the seven-month season can provide a bounty of succulent claws for eager consumers, it's an industry always filled with uncertainty.

For many fishermen who work the Gulf of Mexico year-round, stone crab season, Oct. 15 to May 15, is something of a godsend during a time of year when long-line fishing can be hit or miss.

But variables in weather and predator invasions make it a business that's tough to predict.

"It's tough when your livelihood is so chaotic," Birren said. "Back in 2008 and 2009, we were averaging about 800 pounds per boat every day. But last year, most of the boats were averaging between 75 and 150 pounds a trip. There's no money in that."

At best, crabbing is a low-profit venture for many small-boat owners.

In addition to fuel and maintenance for their vessels, there's the cost of commercial fishing permits, commercial boat licenses, plus a 50-cent licensing fee to the state for every trap that is tagged.

As a result of last season's shortage, stone crab prices statewide ratcheted up to historic levels, with jumbo claws recently retailing for as much as $90 a pound, compared with the $60 range in previous years.

Even medium claws, which used to retail for less than $20 a pound, now cost between $30 and $35 a pound in many seafood establishments.

Although the seafood delicacy may have been in short supply, wholesalers such as 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 buy them no matter how ridiculous the price is," Shook said.

Shook said he won't be able to determine a price for claws until he sees the catch levels in a couple of days.

"We'll likely hold prices to what we had last year if things start out well," he said. "But that's always subject to change. We'll just keep our fingers crossed."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

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