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Stone crab season forecast upbeat, but prices could be high

After two years of meager harvests, the forecast for this year's stone crab catch is cautiously upbeat, though prices likely will remain high.

Crabbers won't know until they start hauling up traps on Wednesday, the official start to the season, but Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, pointed to the absence of crabs' two biggest nemeses: a blood disease in the crabs called hematodinium parasite triggered by red tides in the Gulf of Mexico, and tropical storm interference during the harvesting period.

"If we don't have any storms, we are fairly upbeat that it will be a productive season," he said, noting that concerns about the blood disease have abated but still exist in the Panhandle (where he also said "there is a lingering question about whether there's any correlation in northern gulf (crab numbers) and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill").

"Here in the Keys we have not had some of the algae blooms and red tides that you've seen elsewhere, so that's a very positive sign. And we're getting to the end of storm season and that bodes well for the industry."

The Keys are an important area to watch for crab enthusiasts, since more than 60 percent of crabs harvested come from Southwest Florida. Two years ago the state's total catch was a disappointing 2.6 million pounds of claws (a historic average year is around 3) and last year was hardly better at 2.7 million pounds.

Closer to home, Tommy Shook general manager of Frenchy's Seafood, predicts it may be a slow start to the season since the water has been clear.

"I believe they're out there, but we haven't had anything to get them up and moving around. It's good when a cold front comes through, because a strong wind that churns up the water gets them out and moving around. If it's clear, all the predators want to eat a stone crab."

A cold front bringing rain and wind Tuesday night might be just the thing to get crabs up and ambling into traps.

According to Kris Sahr, who with his brother Kent has 3,000 traps in the Tampa Bay area, thinks this cold front will positively affect the catch next week.

"The best scenario is if the water was muddy when they put the traps out there, so it's not going to affect what's in the traps (Wednesday), but it means good things about what's in the traps five days from now."

Sahr says the word among crabbers is that the crabs are out there, more offshore than inshore due to the lower salinity of the water inshore because of abundant summer rain. And Shook says having a huge red tide five to eight miles offshore was "a blessing."

"We dodged a bullet there inshore. In the 12 years I've been doing stone crabs, we usually have a great season following a bad (offshore) red tide."

Sahr said a large offshore red tide might have another benefit for stone crabbers: "The octopi usually go out there and we're hoping that red tide knocked them out, starving them of oxygen."

Most crabbers see octopi as a threat to crab yields, sneaky cephalopods slithering into crab traps like all-you-can-eat buffets. Still, Ryan Gandy, stone crab guru and research scientist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said his office has found no inverse correlation between populations of octopi and stone crabs.

So what will market prices look like?

"If we knew that we'd be rich," said Gary Graves of Keys Fisheries in Marathon, a key supplier to Joe's Stone Crab. "I've been doing this 47 years, and some years you have red tide, or fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, or octopi, or a storm at the end of October. One of the biggest things is the demand is bigger than the supply. It's Florida's finest seafood and it's limited."

Others are willing to take a stab at pricing.

Steve Crowley at Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde said, "I just talked to one of my guys. They can't check their long-line traps, but they have spotter traps on buoys and it's looking pretty slim. I just heard that it's going to be $10 off the dock to us for a pound of medium claws and over $19 pound for large and jumbo."

That's a slight increase over last year. If the projection holds true, this will mean that Billy's will be pricing a half-pound of mediums at about $14 and a whole pound of mediums for $24 at the restaurant. Gib Migliano at Save On Seafood is setting his initial retail prices at $16.95 a pound for mediums, $24.95 for larges and $29.95 for jumbos.

Steep.

Shook says Frenchy's, serviced by upwards of 45,000 traps, only sold about 80,000 pounds of crabs last year, whereas in a good year they would move 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of crab claws during the season. He thinks all signs so far point to this year's harvest being better than last. But in terms of price, no bargain.

"Last year prices were as high as I've ever seen them. I've got huge orders already this year. It's going to be whatever the market can bear."

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

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