Florida Keys visitors may shudder at the thought that last month was the coldest December on record for Monroe County, but what may be the bane of the tourist industry has been a boon for commercial stone crab fishermen.
Stone crab fishing typically steps up when the water and air temperatures cool down, and this year the weather has helped stone crab fishermen -- already having a banner lobster season -- find their mojo after a dismal season last year.
"We had a few 40-knot blows come through and that scattered the traps out there," said Conch Key-based fisherman Gary Nichols. "But that same weather brought in a good number of crabs. We've been having a nice little run, but it's taking a bit longer to bring them in because we're getting blown around out there."
In December 2010, Key West recorded the coldest average temperature since 1872, when records first were kept, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bill South. The average temperature last month held at 62.9 degrees or about 9.2 degrees below normal, South said.
"We're looking at setting records for the coldest December on average for every weather station south of Gainesville," South said.
Most residents remember last year as a particularly cold winter, but those lows didn't hit the islands until January, South said. Beyond this week's warmer temperatures, what weather the rest of January will bring is still anyone's guess, he said.
The multiple cold weather days and a strong holiday retail market for stone crabs has resulted in a good season for the fishermen, particularly in light of an exceptionally strong lobster season, said Stock Island Lobster Co. owner Peter Bacle.
"The guys have been going really hard this season, with good prices and production," Bacle said Friday. "With everyone hitting it so hard and with the wind blowing the way it has, a lot of guys down here in Key West are taking a rest this week, so it's been hard to gauge the numbers this week."
Bacle is paying fishermen $12 and $15 a pound for large and jumbo stone crab claws. Consumers can typically expect to pay twice the commercial prices.
"As the weather warms a bit and production drops off a bit, we're hoping demand and production even themselves out," Bacle said.
A better assessment of the stone crab season can be found among fishermen in the Middle Keys, which has historically proven to be fertile and consistent crab grounds, Bacle said.
Marathon-based Keys Fisheries Market and Marina Manager Liz Prieto reported strong numbers and good demand this year. She is paying fishermen $7 a pound for medium claws, $12 for large and $15 for jumbos -- up about $3 a pound from the start of the season on Oct. 15.
In Key West, consumers are paying $24.95 a pound for medium claws and $32.95 for jumbos at Eaton Street Seafood Market, where co-owner Sean Seaman reported strong sales.
"The cold push is keeping prices very high and this is the most stable season we've seen in years," Seaman said. "We're crazy. This is the busiest holiday week we've seen in a while."
Those words are music to the ears of fishermen like Nichols.
"The weather provided that shot in the arm," Nichols said. "This was a make-or-break year for a lot of guys, so it's a real blessing. You know those T-shirts with the smiling face that say 'Life is good?' That's my comment for the season so far."