MARATHON, Fla. (AP) — In 46 years as a commercial fisherman, Gary Graves says he has never seen a stone crab harvest season as poor as this one. Graves, who runs Keys Fisheries in Marathon — the main supplier for Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach — says his catches are down 40 percent since the season opened Oct 15.
"For some reason, they're not here," Graves said of Florida's signature seafood delicacy.
He said five of his boats recently averaged less than 200 pounds per trip among them. In a normal year, each boat should bring in 250 to 300 pounds. Some fishermen, he said, are giving up and bringing in their traps well before the harvest ends on May 15.
Stephen Sawitz, whose family owns the iconic, century-old Joe's, says he's holding daily "crab meetings" with his staff to figure out how to manage inventory.
"The demand did outreach the supply this year," Sawitz said. "I have to cut off large and jumbo when a certain amount have run through the restaurant. We've had to promote other products — Alaskan king crab claws and legs."
The impact is being felt up and down Florida's west coast.
Worst season we've ever seen," said Candice Jolly, manager of City Seafood in Everglades City. "Normally, they'd bring in 800 pounds; now they're bringing in 28 pounds. It's awful."
Added Kathryn Birren, co-owner of Hernando Beach Seafood in the Big Bend region north of Tampa: "It's really bad. A lot of boats have completely stopped crabbing. Our fish house is down to family only. We've talked about shutting our fish house down for awhile. That's never been a possibility for us."
The Gulf of Mexico-wide shortage has driven up stone crab prices to the stratosphere — retailing for as much as $80 a pound for takeout jumbos at Joe's market, compared to the $60 range in previous years. Even mediums, which used to retail for under $20, now cost almost $30 at Joe's.
Captain Jim Hanson's Seafood Restaurant & Market in North Miami also is feeling the pinch of the claw shortage. Trey Hanson said Monday he has mainly mediums, which are running around $23 for takeout, $26 for eat-in. The larger sizes, he said, are gone the day they hit the dock.
But the scarcity does not mean anyone is profiting — fishermen or retailers. A trapping trip can cost as much as $1,200 per day in expenses including fuel, crew, and bait — and this season's meager catches may not even cover costs. Graves says fish houses are paying fishermen what they can to keep traps in the water, and simply passing the higher costs onto retailers, who in turn, recover those costs from consumers.
"No one is making money," Graves said. "It's hand to mouth."
Everyone has his or her opinion about the reason for the shortage: two warmer-than-average winters in a row causing a proliferation of octopus in the Gulf that eat stone crabs caught in traps; the 2010 BP oil spill and the dispersants used on it; recent outbreaks of red tide.
Ryan Gandy, a research scientist who studies crustaceans at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, concedes this has been a bad season so far, but hardly the worst on record.
"I don't have anything to suggest that this isn't within the normal cycle that we see," Gandy said. "It's coming off some good years. It's within what we've seen before in down years."
FWRI figures show peak landings occurred in the 2000-01 season with 3.5 million pounds of claws reported statewide. In 2005-06, after Hurricane Wilma's flooding and high winds disrupted fishing in the Keys and Southwest Florida, the haul was just over 2.2 million pounds. Last season, trappers around the state brought in 2.66 million pounds.
A 2011 stock assessment conducted by Gandy and colleagues suggested stone crab are being overfished — and those numbers don't include catches by recreational divers and trappers, who aren't required to report their landings.
Gandy doesn't believe the BP disaster impacted stone crab populations. He says "recruitment" - young of the year about to enter the fishery_was within normal range during the spill. More likely, he said, factors such as warm weather and red tide have had more of an impact.
Gandy said it's possible the last two months of the season could see an improvement.
"Stone crabs migrate. They move around," he said. "The season ain't over till it's over. We've got a couple months left."