Commercial stone crab fishing is off to a horrendous start this year, fishermen and fish house owners said.
"It has been a disastrous start," Key Fisheries owner Gary Graves said. "It is the highest prices on record. But the catch has been horrible. I am not very confident that this going to be a good year."
Last season was one of the worst on record.
Middle Keys commercial trap fishermen Gary Nichols has tried to stay optimistic.
"If it weren't for the price, the season would be horrible," Nichols said. "The price is just good enough to keep us going out after them. But if the catch drops anymore, we won't be going out."
Nichols is averaging about 300 pounds of crab claws per trip, pulling between 800 to 1,000 traps a day, he said. Fish houses are paying $21 to $23 a pound for jumbo-size claws, $18 to $19 a pound for large claws, and about $12 a pound for medium claws, he said.
"It's better than last year, but it has been spotty at best," Nichols said.
Expecting a holiday rush for crab claws, Eaton Seafood Market in Key West has begun to take reservations for claws, owner Sean Seaman said.
"I think there will be some people on Wednesday and Thursday that will be pretty upset," Seaman said. "The first week was good, and then it went back to what it was last year."
The stone crab fishery is "fully exploited," Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission fisheries biologist Tom Matthews said.
"The crab claw size is down, which is telling us that we are catching them faster than we used to," Matthews said.
There are roughly 1 million stone crab traps off Florida and the annual harvest has been roughly between 2 and 3 million pounds a year, Matthews said.
Ghost traps that have lost their buoys and rest on the bottom, where they can't be retrieved, also are problematic. The traps make great habitat, Matthews said. Stone crabs are cannibalistic; the bigger ones kill and eat the smaller ones.
"Lots of stone crabs go in (the traps), but only the big ones come out," he said. "Crabs are mean."
Stone crab season closes May 16 and reopens Oct. 15 to protect the crabs during peak spawning season. The claws can be possessed and sold during the closed season if they have been harvested and entered into a fish house's inventory by a licensed wholesale or retail dealer before May 16.