Commercial trap fishermen are hoping a strong stone crab season will help make up for a thus-far lousy lobster season.
Fishermen are saying lobster season, which started in August, has been less than stellar so far this year, with low prices and a dismal catch. Trap fishermen began soaking their stone crab traps Friday, and will begin pulling them and harvesting claws on Monday.
"We are all hoping, because lobster season has been horrible," said Lower Keys stone crab fisherman George Nile. "We really need stone crab season to pick up and make up for a poor lobster season. Last year was a really good year [for stone crab]."
In fact, the past two seasons have gone well. The 2011-2012 season ended with fishermen earning $14 for jumbo crab claws, $11 for large claws and $5 for mediums to smalls. Consumers usually pay a little less than twice that at the seafood counter.
Some lobster fishermen are reporting stone crabs beginning to show up in their lobster pots, but caution that it is too early to tell if that is a good omen.
"There were a lot of crabs all year round," said Conch Key fisherman Gary Nichols. "After [Tropical Storm Issac], the traps were loaded with stone crabs. Once we cleared them out of the traps, they didn't come back. Neither did the lobsters."
The demand for stone crab generally is at its peak in the first week of the season, as Florida Keys residents and tourists await the arrival of claws in local seafood markets and restaurants. It tapers off in late October, but demand picks up again over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Sean Seaman, owner of Eaton Street Seafood Market, has to order claws in advance, said Nichols.
"It will be a late day and night on that first day," Seaman said. "I will have to cook a lot of crabs those first couple days."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission closes the season May 16 to protect the crabs during the peak spawning season. Stone crab claws can be possessed and sold the during the closed season if they have been harvested and entered into a fish house's inventory by a licensed wholesale or retail dealer prior to May 16.
Keys fishermen harvest, on average, about 2 million pounds of claws, or about 65 percent of all the stone crab claws taken statewide, according to Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly.