Stone crabber Jim Miller was wistful as he pulled his last traps out of the water on the last day of stone crab season Tuesday and looked ahead to a long summer without steady work.
"It's going to be tight," said Miller, 60, unloading his boat "Ol Crab" at Kelly's Fish House in Naples. "It was pretty tight all year."
Stone crab claws hold a spot as the most valuable fishery in Collier County; only the Florida Keys boasts larger annual catches. The talk around the docks this year, though, has been about the worst stone crab season many crabbers can remember. Crabbers say they got pinched by smaller claws, smaller catches and smaller paychecks to carry them through until stone crab season reopens Oct. 15.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hasn't finished tallying up the catch numbers, but so far they show the catch coming in at 593,000 pounds of claws this season compared to 693,000 pounds last season.
A mild winter with fewer cold fronts stirring up the water has kept stone crabs hunkered down rather than scrambling into the traps set for them, Conservation Commission research scientist Ryan Gandy said.
Miller has another theory. He said an invasion of octopus, which feast on the trapped stone crabs, chased the crabs south last year and they haven't come back, Miller said.
"Crabs are scared to death of them," Miller said.
While crabbers brace for a summer without stone crabbing, lovers of the Southwest Florida delicacy are rushing to get their last fresh fix of the season, said Pat Kirk, owner and manager at Capt. Kirk's Stone Crabs in downtown Naples.
"My phone's been ringing off the hook with people wanting me to hold some for them," Kirk said.
She said her last batch of fresh claws should last until the end of the week, but she plans to have hundreds of pounds frozen to tide customers over until October. Customers call a couple of days ahead to give the claws time to thaw slowly so as not to ruin them, Kirk said.
At the Oyster House Restaurant in Everglades City, owner Bob Miller said his business will fall off 30 percent with the end of stone crab season. It's not just about eating them though, he said. Catching stone crabs is as important to Everglades City's 500 residents as tourism, Miller said.
"It's probably the mainstay for everyone that lives in town," said Miller, a director of the Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the county's Tourist Development Council.
With the end of stone crab season, commercial fishermen who have pulled up traps since October pull up stakes and move on to the next fishing spot, Miller said.
Some will switch to other Florida catches or jobs off the water altogether. Spiny lobster season starts in August. He said he knows other fishermen who travel to Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina to work before coming back to Everglades City for the start of the next stone crab season.
Miller, the stone crabber at Kelly's Fish House, is staying put. He started stone crabbing in 1973, quitting in the early 1990s to build custom doors at Causeway Lumber in Bonita Springs. When the recession hit, he went back to crabbing.
"There's nothing else to do," he said. "There's no (economic) recovery as far as anybody on the street can see."
Miller's haul this year was a little more than half of last year's numbers, he said. One crabber told him it's been the hardest he's ever worked the traps for so little return, Miller said.
During the off-season, Miller will spend a couple months maintaining his thousand traps, scraping off barnacles and repairing broken ones.
But he's got other plans first.
"I'll get a little rest, because I'm getting long in the tooth, and then I'll get ready for next season."