Stone crab season starts with reports of below-average catches

Move over, oysters and shrimp. Seafood shop owners in Naples made space in their refrigerated display cases for Saturday’s official start of stone crab season.

With the first boats out before dawn to haul in traps set out in the Gulf of Mexico during the last 10 days, the rush is on at area fish counters and restaurants. Day 1 has a history of being frenzied. Yet, the first reports might not meet the anticipation.

“Everybody wants the initial crabs,” said Pat Kirk, who along with her husband, commercial fisherman Damas Kirk, owners Captain Kirk’s Stone Crabs in downtown Naples.

“Some people say ‘I think they are sweeter.’ I think they are just hungry for them,” she laughed.

Word early in the day from crabbers out on the water wasn’t positive, the Kirks said.

Each trap was yielding between a 1/4 pound and a 1/2 pound of claws — sometimes enough to break even. But to make money, Damas Kirk said that number needs to be bigger.

“Anything over a 1/2 pound, 3/4 of a pound, you’re making money,” he said.

With the start of the season falling on a Saturday, the Kirks decided to open their shop Sunday to meet demand and get the stock of stone crabs out the door as quickly as it came in.

Just east of Kirk’s, across the Gordon River, Combs Fish Co. provides seafood to Kelly’s Fish House in addition to selling wholesale.

The first reports at Combs from crabbers weren’t good either, with traps yielding a 1/4 pound of claws, said Keith Ellis, who processed the crabs from the seven boats Combs Fish set out Saturday.

“The price will probably shoot up. It can all change within a week though,” Ellis said.

Crabbers describe the ideal condition for a good haul of stone crabs as murky, cooler water. Reports funneled from crabbers to their land-loving counterparts Saturday were that the waters were clear — a possible factor in the smaller quantities caught.

Ellis estimates the company tossed 15,000 crab traps into the Gulf and will bring in around 2,000 pounds of crab claws the first day. A 400-pound batch takes him about 16 minutes to cook.

In Naples, only two seafood retailers contacted had set prices by Saturday afternoon, with an average of $11.50 per pound of medium claws, and $22 for jumbos. Other retailers reported that they were waiting for the catches to come in the evening before determining what they would charge.

Commercial crabbers lay hundreds to thousands of baited wood, plastic, or wire traps in the 10 days before the official start of the season, which runs from October 15 to May 15.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations limit both when and how recreational and commercial crabbers can harvest stone crabs.

The traps are hauled up to the deck of the boat, where the claws are wrenched off. The claws must be at least 2¾ inches in length to be harvested legally, according to regulations, and cannot be taken from egg-bearing female stone crabs.

The crab is then returned to the water, where in theory its claw will regrow, leading some crabbers to call the industry more sustainable than fishing.

Millions of pounds of stone crabs are harvested in Florida during season. In 2009 more than 2.6 million pounds were harvested in the state, according to the Collier County Extension Marine and Sea Grant Program — an estimated value that topped $17 million.

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