Slow start to season

Disappointing early catches for area stone crabbers

Lance Shearer

How bad were conditions for area stone crabbers as the season got underway? For several days, boats from Goodland were not bothering to go out, as the claws they could harvest from the traps the crabbers pulled wouldn’t even cover their fuel and expenses.

After a stone crab season ending last May that was generally favorable for area crabbers, they are once again casting their bread on the water – or their cow hooves, pig trotters, fish guts, and whatever else they use to bait their traps with – and waiting for the crabs to come in and feed.

The fishermen started putting their traps into the water on Oct. 5, and on Oct. 15, they began to legally harvest the first of the season’s claws and offer them for sale. With disappointing early catches from the first few days of pulling the traps, the crabbers will leave the traps in the Gulf longer to give the crabs time to fill them, said Pat Kirk of Kirk Fish Company in Goodland.

“They might leave them in the water for 10 or 20 days,” while when the crabs are actively populating the traps, they are pulled on a much quicker cycle, said Kirk. “We know the crabs are there – we’ve just gotta find them.”

The first few days of the season, she said, “they’ve cooked a pitiful amount of crabs,” and several boats were waiting for conditions to improve before they ventured offshore again.

Kelly Kirk is the sixth generation of a local fishing family. The local stone crab season is off to a slow start for area fishermen, with longtime observers saying bad weather is needed for a good crab harvest.

Her husband, Damas Kirk, is a fifth-generation local fisherman, whose great aunt was Tommie Barfield, an icon in Marco Island history. Damas Kirk said the local crabbers are in serious need of finding and harvesting a bountiful catch.

“These guys are needing a paycheck pretty bad right now,” he said. “Opening day was rough for our guys. They’re out $50,000 or so, and they haven’t made any money since last May.” He used to fish 10,000 stone crab traps, but no longer goes out himself.

Damas and Pat’s daughter Kelly, the sixth-generation of a local commercial fishing family, said they have heard that crabbers further north in the Gulf, north of Tarpon Springs, have been bringing in good catches, but “all the way down into the Keys, no one’s seeing big numbers.” The good news is that despite all the concern about red tide and blue/green algae in the Gulf, the crabs that the stone crab fishery locally has been producing are healthy and unaffected.

“Everyone’s extremely eager” for the product, she said. “They all want them as soon as they can get them.”

The low supply of crabs has also affected area restaurants. As of Saturday afternoon, Truluck’s in Naples, which serves a popular all-you-can-eat stone crab dinner on Monday night, had not verified if they would be able to offer it this week.

In Everglades City, Howie Grimm, the owner of Grimm’s Stone Crab in Everglades City, and also the mayor of Everglades City, confirmed the season was off to an inauspicious start.

Like other longtime observers of the industry, Grimm postulated that the good weather has made for bad crabbing. “Maybe we need a few cold fronts,” he said. “Right now, it feels like August. Till we get some cooler weather, these guys are not going to get what they need.”

“The water’s too hot,” said Damas Kirk.

Research scientist Dr. Ryan Gandy, of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Crustacean Research Program, looks at the big picture, and he sees the current downturn in the crabbers’ hauls as part of a larger cycle. Historically, 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.

Customer Kick Bolin of Naples came to get his first stone crab claws of the season from Pat Kirk at Kirk Fish Co. in Goodland on Saturday. The local stone crab season is off to a slow start for area fishermen, with longtime observers saying bad weather is needed for a good crab harvest.

“This year’s pre-season catch is low in most areas, with many areas being similar to last year’s catch at this time of year. Several fishermen have said that they will either not fish or start the season deploying half of their traps and focus those traps further offshore than they would normally fish at the start of the season,” said Gandy. “In discussions with commercial fishermen the catch rates were below what they would expect.”

The waters off of Pine Island and Sanibel, he said, did show an impact from red tide and algae blooms on the stone crab harvest, although “the effect appeared to decrease as we sampled further offshore.”

The effects of last year’s massive storm system is still being felt. As public information specialist Michelle Kerr with the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute noted, “we cannot compare this pre-season catch to last year’s pre-season catch because our trap lines off of Everglades City were lost last year due to Hurricane Irma prior to the season opening.”

Stone crab claws are a renewable resource, with the crustaceans returned alive to the water after legal-size claws are harvested, and many regenerating new claws to be harvested again, but there has been ever-increasing pressure on their population. Declining returns for increased effort have been a reality in the stone crab fishery for decades, said Gandy. “The fishery is very effective at extracting all the claws out there.”

From the 1962-63 fishing year (the first year FWC made an estimate of the number of traps in the fishery) to the 2001-02 year, the number of traps in the fishery increased more than a hundred-fold, from 15,000 traps in 1963 year to 1.6 million traps in 2002. In the 1998-99 fishing year, FWC employees conducted a physical count of the stone crab traps and found a total of 1.4 million traps, which was twice the number that was estimated in 1992-93.  As a response to the rapidly increasing number of traps in the fishery, the Florida State Legislature approved a stone crab trap limitation program that was implemented in October 2002.

Catch rates per trap dropped from over 20 lbs. per trap in the ’60s to less than five lbs. per trap in 1983. This past season, said Kirk, local crabbers were lucky to bring in more than 2-3 lbs. per trap.

Obeying the law of supply and demand, prices have been high for the claws that are available. At Grimm’s Stone Crab, medium claws, the smallest size, were selling for $17 per lb., large were $27, and jumbo claws went for $37 per lb. And remember, they are called stone crabs because of the heavy shell on their claws; a stone crab claw is more than 50 percent shell. L

But none of that comes close to dissuading the legions of local stone crab aficionados, who are hoping for the supplies of their favorite shellfish to increase. And the crabbers and seafood market operators are philosophical about the situation.

“When you’re dealing with something that’s wild, you just never know,” said Grimm.

“We haven’t seen them return yet, but we’re optimistic,” said Pat Kirk. “In this business, you have to be.”