Pinched by rising prices, Everglades City crabbers give up strike against Miami eatery

Stone crab are washed after they were cooked at Truluck Seafood's Capri Fisheries in Isles of Capri on Thursday afternoon.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Stone crab are washed after they were cooked at Truluck Seafood's Capri Fisheries in Isles of Capri on Thursday afternoon.

Kit Johnson came home from a day of stone crabbing defeated.

His crew brought in 300 pounds worth of claws Thursday, but the Everglades City resident said he'll be lucky to turn much of a profit after weeks of below average hauls, increasing overhead and his employer's refusal to pay area crabbers more for their efforts.

This time last year, he was trapping twice what he is now and earning more money.

Johnson, a stone crabber for more than 30 years, was part of a group of Everglades City crabbers who staged an informal strike last week hoping Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach would pay them a dollar more per pound of crab. However, the restaurant refused, Johnson said, even after he and his men stopped fishing for nine days.

The crabbers returned to the water Jan. 1.

"We got to pay our bills," said Johnson, 54. "We got to put food on the table. We don't have a choice. We have to keep kissing their (rears)."

Johnson said he's tied to Joe's Stone Crab because they help out in the off season, paying for his traps and loaning him money for supplies. He doesn't have an official contract, but he's in debt to them.

"Usually it's no big deal and you pay it back," he said.

Attempts to reach Joe's Stone Crab officials for comment Thursday were unsuccessful. An employee who answered the phone at the Washington Avenue location in Miami Beach said the restaurant charges market price for its stone crab meals.

Three jumbo claws run for $71.95, she said. Johnson said his men earn $14 per pound of jumbo claws.

"I think everybody should really know what they pay their boats and what they get in their restaurants," Johnson said.

Diesel fuel has increased 7 cents a gallon this year and bait is up 4 cents a pound, Johnson said. For Johnson, whose crews use 150 gallons of gas and 1,000 pounds of bait a day, that's more than an added $50 each day they fish, regardless of the outcome.

Along the coast, stone crabbers are facing increased costs to operate in a slow season. Some Naples retailers agreed to pay an additional dollar per pound to their crabbers, but wish they had more to sell during the busy holiday season.

"We could have sold more than we had," said Pat Kirk, co-owner of Captain Kirk's Stone Crabs on Eighth Street South. "Everyone wants seafood. Christmas to New Year's is our biggest week."

Randy's Fish Market hasn't had stone crab in stock all week.

"We'd order 200 pounds and they'd only send us 40 pounds," said Jon Kujawski, director of order processing and purchasing. "People love them. If we have them they usually fly out the door."

Kujawski said this time of the season is usually slow because more people are in the area buying up what fishermen catch. He expects to have the claws back in stock soon.

This week's cold front and heavy winds have stirred the seabeds and crabs ventured from their hiding places to explore, unseen by predators. Now is when crabs are more likely to stumble into traps. At the same time, crabbers are less keen to face the cool temperatures and winds.

"Yesterday we only had two or three boats go out, but two days ago we had no boats," said Tony Almazan, manager at Capri Fisheries on Isles of Capri.

While the strike had bad timing, some retailers said the crabbers deserve the raise.

"With the price of fuel and all the rules and regulations, the cost for fishermen is absurd," said Kirk, whose husband is a fourth-generation Marco island crabber. "An average boat costs $1,000 a day before he even makes a profit. People don't realize that. People think you just go out there and grab them.

"My husband always tells people, 'If you came out here for one day on my boat when the wind is blowing, you'd think you were getting a deal.'"

Demand for the crustacean is still high in the area this crab season, which kicked off Oct. 15 and runs through May 15. Customers are still paying despite an increase in price at some locations, including Wynn's Market on U.S. 41 where a pound of colossal claws now costs more than $30 and a pound of jumbo claws costs more than $20.

"The prices don't seem to deter people in Naples from buying them," said seafood manager Phil Anzalone. "But the middle class sure can't afford them anymore."

Customers are still showing up for the all-you-can-eat stone crab Mondays at Truluck's Seafood, Steak and Crab House on Fourth Avenue South, where prices have stayed the same despite the raise they gave to their crabbers. Rick Rinella oversees operations for two fisheries — one in Isles of Capri and one in Goodland — that supply 11 restaurants including Truluck's. He said he paid his crabbers $1 more per pound this year to avoid a strike.

"We didn't raise prices at the restaurant," Rinella said. 'We eat the cost, we don't pass it on. Other restaurants who don't own fisheries like we do may have to pass on the price to the consumer."

In 2010, Florida caught 2.6 million pounds of stone crab claws at an estimate value of $23.7 million, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Collier County caught 608,046 pounds of stone crab and Lee County caught 269,240 pounds in 2010, the most recent year with finished data.

Bryan Fluech, an agent with the Collier County Extension Marine and Sea Grant Program, said Collier County is second only to Monroe County in the number of pounds it catches each year.

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

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features