If you have a Keys stone crab fisherman or -woman in your life, they might be a little happier this week. The past few days have been a sweet spot for both finding crabs in their traps then selling their product at higher prices to the local fisheries.
“Prices did escalate for boat prices,” said Gary Graves, vice president at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries Market & Marina, which buys stone crabs from commercial fishermen then sells them to the public. “So retail prices go up. And wholesale prices went up. Also, the last 10 or 12 days, production went up. A cold front has stirred the bottom up and down the state. This is great news for the fishermen. And there’s a strong demand in January and December — tourist season. It’s still too early to tell. We hope for a good season. We have several months to go.”
“When waters are clear, the predators to the crab have an easier time catching them,” said Bob Charney, the new owner of Key Largo Fisheries. “When the wind picks up with cold fronts, then water is less clear and the crabs are more confident to move around.”
But when the stone crabbing season started a month ago, the ‘ditch diggers’ — as Bill Kelly affectionately calls them — were being more elusive since the waters were clear at that point. Kelly is the executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
“The season got off to a slow start,” said Kelly. “In Miami and the Upper Keys area, crabbing has been on the normal to on the plus side. It’s slow in the Middle Keys and about average in the Lower Keys. Until the past two weeks, we had warm weather and not much in the way of wind. So what’s happened now is in the past week or so there’s been an uptick. With the fall weather systems, we’re getting reports of higher harvest levels.”
Fisheries are naturally shy about revealing the prices they pay to the boats coming in with product, but a peek at the retail prices tells a story. At the beginning of the season in mid-October, local fisheries were selling stone crab claws for $30 to $65 per pound retail, depending upon the size. Now the black-tipped claws are going for $30 to $75 per pound retail.
And Kelly wants to assure our readers who love our waters and its creatures that the members of his association are working hard to protect the stone crab population.
“We formed a commercial stone crab advisory panel for Florida in 2014 to address the issue,” Kelly explained. “We work with Dr. Ryan Gandy. He’s the FWC guru for the stone crab. The industry and science have come together to manage the species in a sustainable way, and it’s working.”
Kelly pointed out that stakeholders approved an eighth of an inch increase in the minimum claw size that can be caught, to 2 and seven eighths inches.
“It’s going to increase crab biomass by 250,000 pounds per year. At a minimum, our goal is to increase the overall crab biomass population by a million pounds over five years,” he said.
But there is a bottom line, and locals, tourists — even online shoppers — seem to be happy to pay prices for the delicacy, especially as the holidays are just around the corner.
“We’re a 50-year-old local fishery, and we offer stone crab both retail and at the café,” said Charney of Key Largo Fisheries. “Come on down.”