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Days into stone crab season, seafood markets, wholesalers and restaurants are reeling from record-high prices and disappointing landings for Florida’s sweet delicacy of the sea.
Crabbers and stores say lean traps caused by unusually warm waters in the Florida Keys and certain supply-chain costs are pinching stone crab supplies, sending prices as much as 25 percent higher on menus than at the start of the 2020 season. If there’s any good news, it’s this: Customer demand remains as strong as ever.
Peter Jarvis, owner of Hollywood’s Triar Seafood, says he pre-ordered 2,000 pounds of stone crabs from his six fisheries from Key West to St. Petersburg. His first pull on Monday? 1,200 pounds.
“It came in way under expectations,” says Jarvis, whose specialty wholesaler sells to the public and high-end restaurants. “The good news is, they’re still delicious. But everybody I talked to out of the Keys today says it’s been horrible. And I’ve never seen prices this high.”
Naturally, pent-up demand always drives up prices in the opening weeks of stone crab season. But Jarvis theorizes that higher costs for diesel fuel and trap bait, and not enough shipmates to work the crabbing boats, should keep claw costs high until next spring, when demand traditionally drops.
“It’s 20, 25 percent higher and it will stay that way,” Jarvis says. “Restaurants aren’t going to make a lot of profit margin on it, and fewer folks will be able to afford it.”
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.
At Delaware Chicken Farm & Seafood Market in Hollywood, low supplies meant medium claws sold out quickly. Large claws cost $44.99 a pound while jumbos are $54.99. Supplies are so low this week at Luff’s Fish House in Boca Raton, the restaurant can’t sell stone crabs as a daily special. Its new market on Palmetto Park Road sells large claws for $47 per pound, but don’t bother asking for mediums or colossals.
Prices are so high, Catfish Dewey’s in Fort Lauderdale is offering its all-you-can-eat special for medium claws only – after receiving just half of his 600-pound order on Monday, owner Dewey Culbreth says.
“We’re not a fancy restaurant by any means, so I’m a little frightened to put menu prices that high,” Culbreth says. “They’re too crazy expensive, and it’s a big risk to buy $10,000 worth of stone crabs up front because you’ve got a limited window to sell them fresh.”
At his family-owned Papa’s Raw Bar in Lighthouse Point, owner Troy Gantry blames his disappointing crab harvest in the Bahamas – where his supplier’s fishery owns 6,000 traps – on a lack of recent storms.
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“My dad has been buying stone crabs for 42 years, and this has been the worst opening in three decades,” says Gantry, whose retail market currently sells mediums for $40, larges for $50, jumbos for $60 and colossals for $70. “We’re still making a dollar profit, but it’s a much smaller percentage.”
Most of Florida’s annual stone-crab catch comes from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys and Florida Bay, with some crabbers working waters near Miami and the Bahamas.
But not every seafood market is feeling the stone crab pinch. Clay Brand, a commercial fisherman and owner of Captain Clay and Sons Fish Market in Delray Beach, got lucky with his haul. He reports prices are “on par” with the start of the 2020 season: $26.99 for mediums, $38.99 for larges, $49.99 for jumbos and $59.99 for colossals.
“My guys know where to put their traps in the Keys,” he says. “I’m glad my [crabbers] aren’t having an issue. I didn’t even know other markets were having this problem.”
If prices do taper off, it will be because of higher claw quantities at the docks, Culbreth says.
“People should be a little patient, maybe wait a bit longer,” he says. “And let’s hope that’s not foolish confidence.”