It was a strange boom-or-bust season for stone crabbers on Florida's west coast, and to an extent, for the consumers who yearn for that sweet, flaky and oh-so-pricey claw meat.
The effects of a long-lasting red tide that persisted since the previous season left crab traps woefully uncrowded from Marco Island north to Tampa Bay, said Ryan Gandy, research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The red tide finally cleared in February, but no one knows when or to what extent the crabs will return to the waters off southwest Florida. They certainly didn't seem to bounce back before the 2018-2019 season ended May 16.
"We knew guys who were fishing 500 traps and would catch less than six or seven pounds," Gandy said. "Lots of (crabbers) just didn't do it this year."
Meanwhile, those crabbing to the north, from around New Port Richey to the panhandle, saw some giant hauls, especially early in the season, which started in October.
The director of one commercial fishing association described Florida's season overall as "pretty disastrous," unless you were between Hudson and Crystal River where "they were breaking records."
"What's crazy is the rest of the world had a horrible crab season," said seafood wholesaler Jason Delacruz, "but (in that northwest Florida region) prices were through the roof, because nobody else had them."
One local crabber he buys from scored 800 pounds of claws on his last outing of the season.
"That pull alone," Delacruz said, "netted that guy $14,000."
What happened? Scientists, wholesalers and crabbers believe the crabs scurried north to escape the red tide as it was sucking the oxygen out of the water. That escape led them right into the traps of crabbers like Mike Berrin of Gulf Seafood Products, who runs two boats and about 10,000 traps out of Hudson.
Berrin said the first half of the season was probably his best in 25 or 30 years, but things slowed to a crawl as spring returned and in the last month "the bottom just fell out." He thinks the crabs that were running north, so abundant at first, kept on running, right past him.
But who knows?
"If you think you know exactly what the crabs are doing," Berrin said, "you're probably crazy."
He chased them up to about Cedar Key, but couldn't feasibly venture north of there.
"I wish it would have lasted," he said. "I need a new engine, and if it kept going how it was, I could have paid for the whole thing."
Consumers still wanted their stone crab claws for dinner despite the high and fluctuating costs.
"It didn't seem to deter the tourists, even at exorbitant prices," said Karen Bell of AP Bell Fish Co. in Manatee County. "It deterred me. I didn't eat any this season. It's hard to justify it when I can sell them for so much."
Bell said she paid the crabbers "boat price" of $12 per pound for medium, $18 for large and $23 for "jumbo." For comparison, A St. Petersburg Times story from April 1988 about higher prices for stone crab listed the boat price at the time as $4.60 to $5.60 per pound.
This year, Bell sold them wholesale for about $3 per pound more than that, and retail for about $5 more. Frenchy's Stone Crab Company in Clearwater said its end-of-season retail prices ranged from $18.95 per pound for medium to $42 per pound for "colossal" claws.
At the Crab House restaurant on Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg, bartender Jessica Quattrone said the price for a one-pound stone crab dinner went from $16 at the plentiful start of the season to $26 a few months later. Even then, "we always sold them if we had them."
About a month ago they disappeared from the menu altogether as the supply dwindled. They'd gotten too expensive, she said, "and were not really looking that good" for the price.
Overall, it was a tough year for the industry with a lower number of claws harvested statewide, said Bill Kelley, director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association.
In South Florida, Monroe and Collier Counties alone normally account for half of Florida's stone crab haul, but Collier had red tide, he said, and Monroe, which includes the Florida Keys, was perhaps still suffering from 2017's Hurricane Irma, which scarred Florida Bay down to the rock bottom, making it uncomfortable for stone crabs, which like to burrow in mud. In the Panhandle, red tide and the effects from Hurricane Michael made for a poor season there as well.
Crabbing on the east coast up to Miami, Kelley said, was "pretty good."
Official counts will take months to tally, but the FWC said projections show an expected total state haul of about 2 million pounds of claws for the season, and possibly less. The prior season's total was about 2.1 million.
Those numbers are part of an overall decline since 2000, from the Florida industry's peak of about 3.5 million pounds per season. Since then, seasons have varied between about 2.2 million and 3 million pounds.
Kelly said a group of commercial fishermen and scientists would have a stone crab advisory meeting in Punta Gorda on June 24 to discuss "what we're looking at for the long haul."
One idea he hopes might boost production would be installing escape panels in the traps that would allow juvenile crabs to escape, rather than becoming lunch for a bigger, trapped crab. The hatches would be too small for a crab with a legal-size claw to escape.
Such traps, he said, have been shown to average 10 to 18 more pounds of harvestable crab claws by eliminating by-catch.
Kelley said that Florida's commercial fishermen are very concerned about this year's storm season, and that he's been waiting since Irma to see federal relief money for Florida fisheries.
"We have been working through channels to see if we can get a fisheries disaster declared and to see if Congress can provide monetary relief" to the Florida fisheries affected by red tide, which include stone crab, Jessica McCawley, director of the Division of Marine Fisheries Management for FWC said via email.
Stone crabs are considered one of the more sustainable types of Florida seafood. Only the claw, which grows back, is removed. The rest of the crab is thrown back to live on.
Contact Christopher Spata at email@example.com or follow @Spatatimes.