It’s stone crab season! As of Oct. 15, Keys commercial fishermen and -women have been bringing up their traps, hoping against all hope that they are full of the shellfish with the black-tipped claws. And locals have been on the hunt for them as well, showing up at restaurants this past weekend to order the first catch of the season … and sometimes being disappointed. One Keys Weekly staff member reports that at least one eatery in Marathon was sold out of their stone crab special, and Key Largo Fisheries was sold out of the colossal jumbo crab on Oct. 18. So what gives?

As one commercial fisherman colorfully put it, “I could catch more crabs on Duval Street right now than in the Florida Bay.”

Understandably, Bill Kelly, the executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association, expressed himself in a more understated way. 

“It’s not overwhelming, I can tell you that,” he told Keys Weekly about the 2021 stone crab harvest’s first weekend.

Gary Graves, vice president at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries Market & Marina, which buys stone crabs from the commercial fisherman then sells them to the public, is a little more blunt.

“The catch is way off in our area,” he said. “It’s very slow. But it’s the second day of season. It’s hard to predict.”

Kelly explained that the stone crab catch has been off since Hurricane Irma, which stripped the mud off the limestone rock prevalent throughout the area. 

“We affectionately refer to stone crab as ‘ditch diggers,’ because they live in the mud,” he said. “What happened is we saw these animals move out of the area. A typical year, (the total catch) would be 2.9 million pounds or 3.2. And last year, the number was 2.2 million.”

Tom Hill is the owner/manager of Key Largo Fisheries, which also buys stone crab from commercial fishermen. He says the low catch is due, in part, to the recent calm weather. 

“When there’s wind, stone crabs move around looking for food,” he explained.

One commercial fisherman, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that “I got a 1/4 pound per trap average on my opener. I was hopeful for a full pound per trap average. A good middle of the road average would be 1/2 pound per trap.”

However, the fisherman pointed out one benefit of the low-supply, high-demand situation.

“I’m pleased with the market. My prices are good,” he said.

The fisheries won’t reveal the exact prices that they are buying stone crab for from the fishermen, but Hill of Key Largo Fisheries does admit that the number is “elevated.”

“Supply and demand is the biggest law: When there’s not a lot of supply, the demand is high and prices go up,” he said. “But the price today, Saturday or yesterday isn’t necessarily the price next Saturday. The first couple of days, people really want stone crabs. After that it goes to what the market is.”

As of press time, local fisheries were selling stone crab claws for a range of $30 to $65 per pound retail, depending upon the size. Which equals: big money.

“Ninety percent of stone crabs harvested in the U.S. come from Florida. In terms of economic value, the stone crab fishery to Monroe County is valued to be $35 million for the price coming off the boat,” said Kelly. 

However, he explained that “the turnover” of that $35 million — all the costs related to that catch, such as fuel, boat maintenance and dockage — is six times that amount, $210 million.

“If you take fish, lobsters and stone crab, the value with turnover is $900 million annually. Next to tourism, (commercial fishing) is the second largest economic engine in Monroe County and second largest employer, with 4,500 jobs,” Kelly said.

Even COVID-19 couldn’t dampen consumers’ enthusiasm for the claws with the tender, tasty meat. Though demand was diminished at first by restaurants closing at the beginning of the pandemic, the fisheries got crafty and worked on their internet campaigns so diners could get stone crab delivered to their door.

“The demand was still there for a quality product,” said Kelly. “(Diners) realized shipping charges were offset by the costs they would have paid for cocktails and parking.”

But Hill, who recently sold Key Largo Fisheries for $10.5 million and is assisting with the transition to the new owners, wants locals to keep on coming to their restaurant for their stone crab claws.

“Come on down and get some,” he said. “We’re here to serve the community. They make great Christmas presents. Or add it to Thanksgiving dinner.”

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines;; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.