In­dus­try about to claw back Irma losses

Fish­er­men see fresh hope in new stone crab sea­son

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Mayo Staff writer See CRABS, 10A

If stone crab prices rise again this year, con­sider it a form of hur­ri­cane re­lief for the bat­tered fish­ing in­dus­try in the Flor­ida Keys and South­west Flor­ida. Both ar­eas were hit hard by Hur­ri­cane Irma in Septem­ber, and fish­er­men and crab­bers hope to re­bound with a strong start to stone crab sea­son on Sun­day.

Asked whether crab­bers will seek higher prices this year to re­coup storm losses, Joe’s Stone Crab res­tau­rant owner Steve Sawitz says, “You can count on it.”

But that doesn’t mean crab­bers will get more for their catch. “It’s still all about sup­ply and de­mand,” says Gary Graves, vice pres­i­dent of Keys Fish­eries in Marathon.

De­spite the un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the fish­ing in­dus­try af­ter Irma, Sawitz says he ex­pects ini­tial prices to be the same as those in 2016.

At lo­cal seafood mar­kets, the open­ing price for medi­ums last year was from $17 to $22 a pound, while larger sizes ranged from $25 to $45 a pound.

Keys Fish­eries took heavy dam­age from the Cat­e­gory 4 storm that hit Sept. 10, but it re­opened two weeks ago. Its plant is fixed, its res­tau­rant is back in busi­ness and all 24 of its crab­bing ves­sels are ready to go. “We lost houses. We had em­ploy­ees leave, and lob­ster sea­son has been a dis­as­ter. But all our boats are fine, and all our stone crab traps are fine,” Graves says. “I ex­pect a nor­mal sea­son.”

Stone crab traps weren’t in the water dur­ing the storm. That spared them from get­ting lost at sea, the fate of thou­sands of lob­ster traps. Stone crab traps were al­lowed to be set start­ing Oct. 5, but they can’t be har­vested un­til Sun­day.

Early re­ports are promis­ing for the seven-month stone crab sea­son, which runs through May 15. “The fish­er­men are ready to get back out there,” says Bon­nie Carter, whose fam­ily owns Delaware Chicken and Seafood Mar­ket in Hol­ly­wood. “The guys on the west coast said the de­bris has been cleared, the seabeds are cleaner, and they’re start­ing to see the crabs go into the traps. They’re filling up.”

Prices will not be de­ter­mined un­til the early haul hits the docks and the sup­ply is as­sessed. De­mand al­ways out­strips sup­ply at the start, and that means high prices for the first two weeks.

“For us, Oct. 15 is like the start of the NFL sea­son,” says Sawitz of Joe’s Stone Crab, the cen­tury-old in­sti­tu­tion that re­opens on Sun­day. “Ev­ery­one has the date cir­cled on their cal­en­dars. Ev­ery­one is chomp­ing at the bit.”

Sawitz is a key player in set­ting whole­sale stone crab prices. Joe’s buys roughly 500,000 pounds of 3 mil­lion pounds har­vested in Flor­ida ev­ery sea­son, nearly 17 per­cent of the haul. Be­sides its flag­ship Mi­ami Beach res­tau­rant, Joe’s has a re­tail ship­ping op­er­a­tion that sends crabs world­wide and to out­posts in Chicago, Las Ve­gas and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Prices fluc­tu­ate dur­ing the sea­son depend­ing on weather con­di­tions and holidays, with de­mand surg­ing around Christ­mas and New Year’s Eve. Res­tau­rant prices are higher than at seafood mar­kets, with Joe’s charg­ing $59.95 for a plate of five large stone crabs.

Joe’s gets its sup­ply from Keys Fish­eries and Ernest Hamilton Stone Crab in Ever­glades City. Af­ter the storm, Sawitz was in touch daily with the two sup­pli­ers to of­fer help and to make sure they would be up and run­ning for the sea­son.

“I’m just happy that ev­ery­one is alive and that their fam­i­lies are OK, their fa­cil­i­ties are OK, and their boats are OK,” Sawitz says.

“You take the crabs away and Joe’s is just an­other steak­house, and who wants that?” Graves says. “They need us, and we need them.”

Stone crab prices have steadily in­creased through the years, a func­tion of in­creased world­wide de­mand and rel­a­tively stag­nant sup­ply. Medium-size-claws once sold for less than $10 per pound re­tail, and large could be found for less than $20 a pound. Those days are gone, with the sweet del­i­cacy now sought by food lovers ev­ery­where.

Delaware Seafood Mar­ket sells up to 1,500 pounds of stone crab a week in sea­son. Carter says there may be an­other rea­son stone crab prices keep creep­ing higher. She says some Keys fish­er­men have shifted their fo­cus and traps from stone crab to spiny lob­sters in re­cent years be­cause of huge de­mand from China. That, in turn, could be ham­per­ing lo­cal stone crab sup­plies. “The Chi­nese are go­ing crazy for golden crabs and live Flor­ida lob­sters,” Carter says. Lob­ster sea­son runs through April.

De­spite a tripling of stone crab traps in a 15-year span be­fore 2010, the haul never goes much higher than 3 mil­lion pounds. Stone crabs are found in the Keys, along the Gulf Coast and in Flor­ida Bay.

In Ever­glades City, a fish­ing vil­lage that had ex­ten­sive Irma dam­age, the an­nual bless­ing of the stone crab fleet on Sept. 30 saw a smaller turnout than usual, with many boats still un­der re­pair, ac­cord­ing to the Naples Daily News. Af­ter the cer­e­mony, stone crab fish­er­man Buddy Grimm, who lost his home to flood­ing, told re­porter Ash­ley Collins, “Let the good Lord let the boats run good and bring the crabs in and get us plenty of money.”

JOE'S STONE CRAB/COURTESY

Stone crab sea­son be­gins Sun­day and lasts for seven months. Prices are ex­pected to be high early on as the fish­ing in­dus­try re­cov­ers from los­ing lob­ster traps dur­ing Irma.

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