May 15, 2019

Stone crab claws sit on ice at Key Largo Fisheries as the season draws to a close.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Stone crab claws sit on ice at Key Largo Fisheries as the season draws to a close.

FLORIDA KEYS — A bleak Florida stone crab season ends May 15, marred by a deadly red tide that cut into harvests for the Florida Keys’ second most valuable seafood harvest.

“It’s probably going to wind up as one of the worst seasons on record,” said Gary Graves, manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. “Hurricanes, red tide, Mother Nature — who knows why?”

“A normal season is around 2.75 million pounds” of crab claws, Graves said. “I’m not sure it will even make 2 million pounds. That’s pretty serious.”

But there was a bright side.

“About the only thing that helped save the season at all is demand remained strong,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

The red tide did not reach the Keys, but Middle and Lower Keys boats that run into the Gulf of Mexico reportedly saw lower harvests. Stone crabs claws are Monroe Country’s second-most valuable seafood harvest, after spiny lobster.

“For the most part, guys in the Key Largo area did OK,” said Tom Hill from Key Largo Fisheries. “Overall, the production was not good. The red tide drifted down around Everglades City and those people suffered.”

Southwest Florida endured the worst of the red tide outbreak, blamed for killing untold numbers of stone crabs and driving surviving crustaceans north.

“Red tide is an oxygen stealer,” Kelly said. “The oxygen content in some waters was below 10 percent. That killed stone crabs, blue crabs and sponges.”

Larger crabs are more mobile, he said. “The bigger crabs were running to get out the area, running north as fast as they could.”

Increased harvests in some Gulf of Mexico waters near Florida’s Big Bend “broke all kinds of records,” Kelly said, but Hurricane Michael’s damage to the sea floor off the Panhandle limited production.

“Closer to the Keys, Hurricane Irma also had an effect. It scarified the bottom down to the rock,” he said. “Stone crabs live in the mud, but they didn’t have any mud to dig into.”

At times during the seven-month season, the renowned Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach limited stone-crab claw orders to the appetizer menu.

Monroe County’s 494 commercial stone crab endorsement holders account for 36 percent of the state’s 1,376 professional stone crabbers, reports the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“All we can do is keep our fingers crossed and hope things better,” Graves said.

Stone crabs are considered a sustainable resource since the crustaceans typically are returned to the water alive after legal-size claws are removed.

The stone crab season reopens in October. Commercially harvested claws can be sold in the closed season “but only if [claws] have been placed in inventory prior to May 15 by a licensed wholesale or retail dealer,” the state says.