Stone crabbers: Summer 'going to be tight' after worst season in memory

Scott McIntyre/Staff 
 Bart Bailey stacks the remaining stone crab traps after the last day of the stone crab season at Kelly's Fish House on Tuesday May 15, 2012.

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Scott McIntyre/Staff Bart Bailey stacks the remaining stone crab traps after the last day of the stone crab season at Kelly's Fish House on Tuesday May 15, 2012.

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."

© 2012 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 19

MautheDoog writes:

Bad season indeed! One of my old co-workers has been telling me all year this would not be a good one. Here's hoping next season will be the best! Good luck, Bubba!

wentfishn writes:

I wonder if all the fertilizer water they keep sending into the Gulf plays a role? Maybe they should hire these crabbers to build some water treatment plants. No blue crabs, no clams and oysters anymore, maybe the stone crabs are next.I hope not. Thinkaboutit.

wentfishn writes:

Yup blame nature thats the easy way.

MautheDoog writes:

in response to wentfishn:

I wonder if all the fertilizer water they keep sending into the Gulf plays a role? Maybe they should hire these crabbers to build some water treatment plants. No blue crabs, no clams and oysters anymore, maybe the stone crabs are next.I hope not. Thinkaboutit.

Polution may play a small part of the low stone crab harvest but mainly this year was the octopus and we hardly had any storms in the gulf to stir up the bottom. Crabs seem to like the murky water a little more than clear. They may feel safer when they crawl.

Notthesame writes:

Lets figure out how to make money off the Octopus.

Here4Now writes:

in response to Notthesame:

Lets figure out how to make money off the Octopus.

Heck yah! Octopus is tasty!

wentfishn writes:

Pulpo, its been around forever, just not here. Maybe they are real small here?

cgbexec writes:

in response to firedragon:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I was born in South Florida. I have lived here my entire life. I have traveled to many of our great states (Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Connecticut, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, Washington and Oregon), Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Bahamas, Canada, France and Italy. There is no place I would rather call home. If you are so disillusioned by here, may I suggest you pack up and travel North on I-75 and go home.

Spock_is_logical writes:

Wait... Some idiot is going to blame Obama.

cgbexec writes:

in response to ImNstinksBraFitterAtVictoriasSecret:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Nope, no plans to return to NY. :)

mr_1_term_proposition writes:

in response to Spock_is_logical:

Wait... Some idiot is going to blame Obama.

Well the worst season wasn't recorded during the Bush years......

mr_1_term_proposition writes:

in response to Damyankee:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Et is just pizzeled off her retirement checks aren't what she thought they would be.....maybe if she hadn't taken that early retirement and did a little financial planning when she was younger she wouldn't view everyone who is semi successful a no good Satan.

It isn't the Democrats or Republicans fault she didn't plan but she is pro demorat because she wants "HER FAIR SHARE" Due to her terrible financial planning.

swampbuggy writes:

in response to Spock_is_logical:

Wait... Some idiot is going to blame Obama.

Right! There is no doubt Bush is at fault. Just ask Obama.

born_here writes:

in response to mr_1_term_proposition:

Well the worst season wasn't recorded during the Bush years......

Nope, instead we got 9/11 on Bush's watch.
Osama bin Laden was killed on Obama's orders.

Obama 2012!

wentfishn writes:

in response to born_here:

Nope, instead we got 9/11 on Bush's watch.
Osama bin Laden was killed on Obama's orders.

Obama 2012!

yup, im sure your born here, duhhh.

beetlejuice writes:

cousin has crabs
oh STONE CRAB season
never mind

mr_1_term_proposition writes:

in response to SNOWBIRD27:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

ABUSIVE AND OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE FROM A POTENTIAL HACKER! NDN HOW LONG WILL YOU LET THIS GO ON?

fishguts writes:

The article is about crab fishing. It's about tides, weather, sealife, and hard work. You morons turn it into a political pizzin match. Your drivel is tired, get a life.

Shaawe writes:

On the other hand, blue crabs are all year round.

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