Stone crabs: Good tourist weather is bad sign for crabbers

Scott McIntyre/Staff 
 Tyler Krieg helps unload a boat's catch of stone crab at Truluck Seafood's Capri Fisheries in the Isle of Capri on Thursday afternoon. According to some of the stone crabbers, this season has been slower than previous ones.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Tyler Krieg helps unload a boat's catch of stone crab at Truluck Seafood's Capri Fisheries in the Isle of Capri on Thursday afternoon. According to some of the stone crabbers, this season has been slower than previous ones.

— The problem for stone crabbers is the same thing that makes tourists happy — gorgeous weather.

The stone crab season is off to a dismal start, area crabbers, wholesalers and restaurateurs say, and they primarily blame the weather.

"It's just pitiful right now. Some are bringing in 100 pounds (of claws), some 20 – it doesn't even fill their gas tank," said Pat Kirk of Captain Kirk's Stone Crabs in downtown Naples, alluding to what crabbers are earning for their time on the water.

Many crabbers are sitting at the dock waiting for conditions to improve, she said. For crabbing conditions to get better, the weather needs to get worse. Stone crab harvesting season is Oct. 15 to May 15.

"We need some good northwest winds," Kirk said. "A little dirty water to stir up the bowels of Mother Nature. It's beautiful out, a tourist's dream, but when the water's clear, the crabs stay buried up."

The harvest has been so bad, Truluck's Seafood, Steak & Crab House on Fourth Avenue South in Naples has suspended its popular all you can eat stone crab night on Monday for Christmas Eve and for the following Monday, New Year's Eve.

"It's making us rethink the all you can eat. We don't want to disappoint people," said Rick Rinella, managing partner of Truluck's. "It hasn't been this bad for a long time."

Truluck's, with 10 outlets including the one in downtown Naples, operates a fleet of 16 boats out of Isles of Capri and Goodland. It has business relationships with suppliers in Marathon in the Florida Keys "and we can bring them in from the Bay of Campeche," Rinella said.

"Hopefully we get a few cold fronts and get them moving around," Rinella said.

"We need some kind of weather to stir them up and get them moving," agreed Jon Kujawski, market manager at Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant in North Naples. "This is the busiest time of the year. People always want stone crabs for Christmas and New Year's."

Howie Grimm, owner of Grimm's Seafood in Everglades City, said crabbers are hoping the wet, cooler weather that reached the area Friday will help, but it takes more than a week to see the results. He had another theory.

"It blew so hard when (hurricane) Sandy went by, they just stopped moving," he said.

Along with other crabbers, he said that predation by octopi may be a major part of the stone crab fishery's meager season in other areas of Florida, but isn't a factor locally.

"We absolutely do not have an octopus problem," he said.

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisheries, said the harvest in the Keys is off by "at least 40 percent, maybe 50 percent. It could be ocean warming – I don't know."

Chris Aldrich, manager of Capt. Jerry's Seafood, located at Oakes Farm Market in East Naples, also thinks the problem with the stone crab harvest is more long-range.

"I'm no expert, but I'm a firm believer they killed the Gulf," she said. "The whole ecosystem has been disrupted. All those critters live off smaller critters, who live off smaller critters…"

Research scientist Ryan Gandy of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission's crustacean research program, sees the current downturn in the crabbers' hauls as part of a larger cycle.

Overall, he said, Florida's crabbers take an average of about 2.5 million pounds of stone crab claws each year, with Collier County accounting for about 900,000 pounds of that total.

"They oscillate around 900,000 pounds – that's the benchmark," he said. "Any time you go over that, it usually drops the next year."

The harvest in the 2010-11 season was around the 900,000-pound mark, he said, but the 2011-12 season was up to 1.2 million pounds locally, so a retrenchment is in order.

Independent of commercial crabbers, the FWC counts the very young crabs, from one to ten millimeters. The numbers of young crabs waiting their turn to become part of someone's holiday feast has been holding strong, Gandy said.

"If you have a problem with the environment, that's where you see it – in the baby crabs," he said. "Over the past 10 years, recruitment has been increasing. We see no problem with the baby crabs" that require 18 months to two years to reach legal harvest size.

Stone crabs are a renewable resource because they don't die when a claw is harvested.

Gandy said his department has been conducting "de-claw mortality studies." While research is ongoing, preliminary findings show that about 30 percent of the claws that come into commercial crab operations are regenerated, as opposed to originally grown, so there is significant regrowth of the stone crabs' claws once harvested.

Gandy said he loves crab claws himself, and plans to go out and personally harvest some for a Christmas feast, either by diving or by wading the mud flats.

Those who don't possess the skill to trap their own stone crabs, but have to buy them, should expect to pay more for the pleasure this year.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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