FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Fisherman in southwest Florida say octopuses are threatening to decimate their stone crab harvests.
Octopuses are intelligent, voracious predators. They can easily prey on stone crabs caught in traps in the Gulf of Mexico.
"They're real thick offshore. Past 30 feet deep, we're catching a lot of them," commercial fisherman Shane Dooley tells the News-Press. "Some traps have two or three in them. They eat the crabs as soon as they get in, and they go from trap to trap."
All of Island Crab Co. owner Jeff Haugland's traps are in 40 to 55 feet of water.
"It's like a desert out there," he said. "My boats are seeing plenty of octopus, and they're seeing no stone crab, almost less than none."
While octopuses are plentiful off Lee County, they're not causing problems in other parts of the state, said crab expert Ryan Gandy, a research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Fishermen in the Florida Keys and the Ten Thousands Islands say they have seen some octopuses among their traps, but they're not reporting the losses experienced farther north.
Florida's stone crab season runs Oct. 15 through May 15.
From 2003 through 2012, commercial fishermen harvested an average of 2.68 million pounds of stone crab claws with an average dockside value of $23.09 million. Lee County's 10-year average was 136,666 pounds of claws.
"This season has been kind of mixed," Gandy said. "Right now, landings are two legal claws per trap. That's the low end for this time of year. Landings peak at the beginning of the year with four to five legal claws per trap, and then you have a steady decline to two at the end of the season. Every trip out is a grind when you're getting two claws or less."