Florida's Stone crab season was lousy last year. And this season, it's even worse. Due to a persistent Red Tide algae bloom on the gulf coast, areas like Everglades City have experienced a cataclysmic die-off.
An average season's haul is somewhere around 3.7 million pounds of claws; last season brought in a mere 2.1 million pounds. This year, the owners of iconic South Beach restaurant Joe's Stone Crab said the supply in South Florida is down by about 40 percent. And a recent New York Times story quoted a third-generation crabber from Pine Island, near Fort Myers, saying that the Red Tide "basically killed the ocean floor."
But Tampa Bay was largely spared. Our restaurants and retailers source the bulk of stone crabs from about Dunedin up through the Homosassa and Crystal River area, an area mostly unaffected by Red Tide.
"We dodged a bullet with the Red Tide. We've held our own," said Tommy Shook, general manager of Frenchy's Seafood. "We're getting a couple hundred pounds to 1,000 pounds a night. I'm short today — I'm glad to have 600 to 700 pounds to play with — but it's better than last year."
All across the state, the damage is geographically specific. Since the season started Oct. 15, stone crab production in the Lower Keys and Key West has been good, said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. The Middle Keys are dismal, the Upper Keys fair.
From Everglades City all the way up through Clearwater production has not been good, directly as a result of Red Tide. From Hudson up through the Crystal River area, yields have been good (no Red Tide), but west of Crystal River through the Panhandle, stone crab hauls have been terrible (Hurricane Michael).
Stone crab prices are higher than last year. Demand is steep while supply in other parts of the state is low. Frenchy's sources crabs from Dunedin and areas further north and has seen little dip in quantity from there.
Ed Medley, who owns Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde, is also bullish and has seen little shortage, stocking sizes from medium up through jumbo and colossal — the larger ones are more plentiful early in the season. Medley gets crabs in the north near Homosassa and far offshore in St. Petersburg.
He's selling mediums for around $30 and colossal for around $50. Meanwhile, the menu features whole steamed Maine lobsters for $9.95. Warmer ocean temperatures have led to a glut of lobsters flooding the market in the past few years, causing dock prices to drop from $4 a pound to around $2. So, bargain shoppers have another luxury seafood option if stone crabs seem too steep.
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Indeed, prices may push consumers in a different direction, said Matt Loder, CEO of Crabby Bill's. If you're going to spend $50 for a pound of colossal stone crab claws, you're already at the price point of other top-ticket shellfish like king crab or premium snow crab. And yes, he is also selling a lot of lobster.
"The number of lobster tails we've sold? That's great," Loder said. "Stone crab sales are down, lobster up.
But while higher prices help keep a supply stocked for those willing to pay, he said, it takes away from visitors' and snowbirds' fun visiting the area in search of indigenous foods. His restaurants, especially Seabreeze Island Grill in Redington Shores, saw a significant drop in sales this year due to the specter of protracted Red Tide.
High prices may also reflect fewer crabbers on the water as a result of low-yield seasons like last year.
"It takes out the little guys, the part-timers who are drywallers the rest of the year," Loder said. "Why wouldn't you go do something different that is more financially consistent? So, it ends up being just bigger and bigger players out crabbing."
It's not just Red Tide and hurricanes messing with the hauls. Lower stone crab yields are part of a bigger trend since 2000, said Ryan Gandy, the stone crab guru and research scientist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. It's the same for blue crab, lobster and several other fisheries across the Gulf, attributed to large-scale changes in environmental conditions and weather patterns.
And Hurricane Irma drained a seven-mile triangle in South Florida completely dry for ten hours, scarifying the bottom.
"Stone crabs are ditch diggers and burrowers," Kelly said. "If there's nothing there, they don't have suitable habitat and they move on."
Experts will meet in Punta Gorda on Feb. 25 for a stone crab industry advisory panel to try to get a better sense for what's going on with the fishery. Meanwhile, prepare to pay top dollars for Florida's favorite seafood delicacy.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.