Less than halfway through Florida's lucrative stone crab season, traps are drying up, dealing another blow to a fishing industry still recovering from a beating delivered by a brutal Hurricane Irma.
"Everybody's feeling it," said Walter Flores, owner of the Golden Rule Seafood in Palmetto Bay, which has been selling and serving stone crabs since 1943. Normally Flores starts taking orders for holiday crabs about now. But this year, he said, it's first come, first serve.
"We have them," he said, "but you have to offer more money to get them. It's almost a bidding war."
Medium claws that sold for about $19 a pound last year are now going for $26.99, he said. Large claws are pulling in $45 a pound.
Irma hit about a month before the season opened on Oct. 15, first crossing the Keys, where about 60 percent of the state's stone crabs are caught, then making a second landfall on Marco Island in Collier County, the state's second-biggest supplier responsible for about 20 percent of the catch. Initially, crabbers were optimistic: Many had suffered damage to homes and boats but not traps. In Everglades City, the city held its annual blessing of the fleet followed by a busy day of emptying traps.
"It was probably the best start we got in 10 years," said Everglades City Mayor Howie Grimm, owner of Grimm's Stone Crab.
But by Thanksgiving, more traps started coming up empty, said Ryan Gandy, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who tracks crab landings and monitors eight locations around the state.
"We don't really know why that is," he said. "We know they move when the water gets churned up."
The working theory is that as the massive storm churned up shallow waters where many crabs dwell, they made a move and scuttled offshore. Gandy said fishermen reported few landings inshore with most of their catches coming offshore. In 2005, when Florida got slammed with back to back hurricanes, crab landings also dropped, falling to their second lowest since the state started keeping records in 1986, Gandy said.
But numbers also dropped — to their lowest ever — in 2014 following a quiet storm year. That complicates theories on how the crabs respond to their surroundings. That year a local drought also helped trigger a massive seagrass die-off that worsened conditions in Florida Bay.
"We didn't have a lot of cold fronts. There wasn't a lot of weather moving the crabs around," Gandy said. Conditions "play a factor, but we don't know exactly why they move."
Gandy is now working on a model to better assess the fishery based on about 15 years of data.
Regardless of why, empty crab pots are making life tough for a fleet that typically lands about half to three-quarters of its catch by December. Flores said he has contacted every wholesaler he knows and quizzes every fishermen who delivers an order.
"We're offering top dollar," he said. "They're saying they must be out there, but we pulled 800 traps and got 120 pounds."
At Joe's Stone Crab on Miami Beach, which helped put stone crab on the culinary map when Joe Weiss started selling them in the 1920s, the pinch is less obvious because a seasonal plan helps insure supplies don't dry up when crab pots empty. The restaurant now ships orders globally and maintains its own fleet of crabbers.
In Everglades City, Mayor Howie Grimm, who's also a crabber, said he was not surprised numbers dropped because the fall provided few cold fronts. But with this weekend's chill, he's hopeful the season will turn, just in time for the holidays.
"This will be the true test," he said. "Call back next week and hopefully we'll have a better report."
Contact Jenny Staletovich at email@example.com. Follow @jenstaletovich.