Crabbers trapped in slow harvest season as prices rise in Southwest Florida

A load of stone crab is weighed at Ernest Hamilton's Stone Crab in Everglades City. A poor stone crab harvest is driving up the price of the seafood delicacy. Commercial fishermen across Florida say they've never seen a season as bad as the one that began Oct. 15. And a poor harvest means higher prices at restaurants.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

A load of stone crab is weighed at Ernest Hamilton's Stone Crab in Everglades City. A poor stone crab harvest is driving up the price of the seafood delicacy. Commercial fishermen across Florida say they've never seen a season as bad as the one that began Oct. 15. And a poor harvest means higher prices at restaurants.

— It’s been Randy Essig’s worst stone crab season in 10 years.

“Stone crabs have been ungodly expensive and they have been short this year,” said Essig, owner of Randy’s Fish Market in North Naples.

Randy’s sells a lot of fresh stone crab, and Essig said demand remains high despite the prices driven up by the poor harvest so far. The restaurant is paying as much for the stone crab it buys as the restaurant sold the claws for last year, he said.

It was the same story at Kelly’s Fish House Dining Room in Naples and at Publix supermarkets.

Essig, similar to other restaurateurs and supermarket owners, said he feels bad for the crabbers because they aren’t getting the amount that they would like.

In Florida, stone crab harvesting season is Oct. 15 to May 15.

Ernest Hamilton Stone Crab Inc., in Everglades City, has an average of nine boats going out daily to harvest stone crabs from the traps.

Manager Randy Montero called it a slow season.

Montero said he wouldn’t say it has been a “poor season” because having a poor season would mean crabbers are collecting no stone crabs at all.

“There is no scientific proof of why; it’s just slow,” Montero said of causes for the reduced haul. “It could be a number of things.”

Montero said the pounds of stone crabs per trip is down, but he couldn’t give an average or percentage of the amount because it varies.

“Like anything, you always want more, but we are still catching enough to keep us going,” he said.

Ernest Hamilton Stone Crab Inc. is a major supplier of Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami.

Gary Graves, owner of Keys Fisheries in Marathon and another of Joe’s main suppliers, has said catches are down 40 percent in South Florida. The normal haul for each boat of 250 to 300 pounds of stone crabs per trip has been less than 200 pounds this season, he said.

That affects retailers, and in turn, customers.

“The prices are outrageous,” said Tim Wynn, owner of Wynn’s Market. “Our cost now is what would normally be our retail (charge).”

Wynn’s Market’s average cost for stone crabs from its suppliers is from $18 to more than $30 per pound depending on the size of the claw — medium, large, jumbo. Currently, Wynn’s Market customers can purchase stone crabs for an average of $27 to more than $40 per pound depending on claw size.

Kevin Grimes, meat and seafood department manager at Wynn’s, said it has been a tight season for stone crab and the supply never got better from a slow start.

Grimes said no one has the exact answer why the harvest is down, but some point to red tide off the coast or the octopus, a trap-raiding predator that may be increasing in number in local waters.

But ultimately, every so often, there is a year like this one, he said.

Over the last two weeks, Wynn’s Market is starting to get enough variety of stone crabs to supply its needs, he said. Before that, Wynn’s had a limited amount of stone crab variety to offer customers.

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