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Florida’s stone-crab season has officially begun. The first hauls of that sweet-meat crustacean will arrive on restaurant menus and seafood markets by Oct. 16, with early signs pointing to abundant claws but higher prices than last year.
Fishermen, wholesalers and seafood markets all say COVID-19′s lingering effects, such as supply-chain shortages of fuel, fishing bait and parts for commercial fishing vessels, could spell higher claw prices.
Amy Johnson, owner of Sea Salt Fish Market in Fort Lauderdale, says early reports from the docks on Friday morning are already alarming. Johnson, who works with eight commercial crabbing vessels in the Keys, says she’s seeing average wholesale prices at $20 per pound for medium-size claws, $30 for large, $40 for jumbos and $45 for colossals.
“It’s crazy. These wholesale prices look more like retail prices,” says Johnson, who’s on track to sell 400-500 claws on opening weekend. “It’s definitely higher than past years.”
Restaurants and markets, naturally, set retail prices even higher for their menus. At the start of last season, for example, Catfish Dewey’s in Fort Lauderdale charged $35 per pound for mediums.
Catfish Dewey’s owner Dewey Culbreth is also reporting higher wholesale prices as crabbers at his Gulf Coast fishery pulled their first traps Friday morning. But he’s already noticing impediments that could keep prices high all season: increased costs for diesel fuel for ships and pig’s feet, the preferred bait for crabbers.
“You spend $200 to $300 worth of diesel driving out to the traps, and if you don’t catch enough crabs, it’s a loss with no reward to justify the fuel cost,” Culbreth says. His Gulf Coast suppliers are also short a few drivers, leading to slowdowns in transporting crab hauls.
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Of course, pent-up demand always drives up prices in the opening weeks of stone-crab season. This is second year that the state has shortened the season to May 1. (In years past, it traditionally ended May 15.) The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission implemented four new rules in 2020 that cut the season short by two weeks, aimed at protecting the future supply of crabs after years of declining harvests. One of those rules upped the minimum size for stone-crab claws by a quarter-inch, which triggered higher prices for mediums.
Johnson thinks the shortened stone-crab seasons will “probably stick for a while,” after years of red tides, blue-green algae blooms and hurricanes took their toll on crabbing hauls.
Despite higher prices, Triar Seafood in Hollywood has been inundated with pre-orders for stone crabs – even without knowing the market prices, owner Peter Jarvis says. His specialty seafood wholesaler works with six fisheries from Key West to St. Petersburg to sell stone crabs to the public and to high-end South Florida restaurants.
“Everything else since that pandemic has gone up, so the public have just accepted it as an inevitability,” Jarvis says.