NAPLES — There are plenty of stone crab claws being pulled from the Gulf of Mexico and showing up at local restaurants this season. What there aren't plenty of are big ones.
Area crabbers and wholesalers report that while there is, for the most part, a plentiful supply of the claws, the large and jumbo size crab claws have been far scarcer than the smaller, less-expensive variety.
Like coffee at Starbucks, there is no such thing as a stone crab claw labeled as "small" for sale in the area. The smallest claws sold are "mediums," and they represent the great majority of what is being sold this season.
Truluck's restaurant in downtown Naples, which offers a popular "all you can eat" stone crab dinner on Monday nights, had to switch from large claws to mediums, managing partner Rick Rinella said.
"In previous years, we have featured large claws, and we've reverted back to mediums. It's what's available," he said.
"Supply is tight on the bigger ones," said Jon Kujawski, market manager for Randy's Fishmarket Restaurant in North Naples. "The crabbers make us buy a certain amount of the smaller claws to get the larger ones."
At Captain Kirk's Stone Crabs in downtown Naples, medium claws, weighing two to three ounces apiece, and providing 6 to 8 per pound, were selling for $12.99 on March 23. Large claws, three to five ounces, sold for $22.99 per pound, and jumbo claws, those over five ounces, brought $32.99 to $34.99 per pound, owner and manager Pat Kirk said.
"But the jumbos are spoken for before they come in the house," she said.
Kujawski said the meat makes up about 50 percent of the claw's weight, if you pick every morsel.
Dan Ellinor, biological administrator at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said that near agency headquarters in Tallahassee, it's been a poor season for stone crabs. He directed questions about conditions in the southern Gulf of Mexico to Bill Kelly of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"It's been an outstanding season overall," Kelly said. "Prices held well, and the fishermen are still catching well. It's also been a very robust spiny lobster season."
Stone crabs, he noted, are unique among local seafood in that the crabs aren't killed when harvested, but returned to the water alive after a claw's removed, making them the ultimate renewable resource.
One problem that plagued the crabbing industry last season didn't present a problem this year. In 2011, crabbers were finding their stone crab traps raided by octopi, which love the crustaceans almost as much as humans do.
"There was no problem with the octopus (this season)," said crabber Justin Grimm, manager of Grimm's Seafood in Everglades City. "We never had the cold weather, and that's what brings that on. This late in the season, we probably won't see them at all."
With little in the way of harsh winter weather this winter, the octopus apparently stayed farther north, but that's a double-edged sword, Kirk said.
"We like bad weather," she said. "When it's stirred up on the bottom, that's when the crabs come out, and get into our traps."
Added Rinella: "What helps stone crabs is a cold front, and wind. We haven't had a lot of that."
Time is running short for the availability of fresh stone crab claws. The last day for harvesting the claws is May 15, although the crabbers have another 10 days to get their traps out of the water. After that, plan on waiting until October, when the harvesting season opens again.