Stone crab season nears end in Florida

NAPLES, Fla. - Stone crab harvests in southwest Florida appear to be the highlight of an otherwise dismal season.

The state's stone crab season ends at midnight Thursday. An estimated 1.7 million pounds of stone crab claws have been harvested statewide this season, down from 2.7 million pounds last year.

Commercial fisherman in the Florida Keys have reported record prices for stone crab claws, but only because the crabs were scarce in their waters.

However, Collier County crab processors and wholesalers say they had a good season, with local fishermen reporting healthier catches in areas where they had to pull their traps early last year.

"The season was very fair, for catching and selling," Justin Grimm, manager of Grimm's Seafood in Everglades City, told the Naples Daily News.

Grimm's was selling jumbo claws for $36 per pound Tuesday. Randy's Fishmarket in North Naples was getting $36.99 and jumbo claws were going for $39.99 a pound at Kirk Fresh Seafood Market in Goodland.

At Truluck's Seafood, Steak and Crab House in downtown Naples, the all-you-can-eat Monday stone crab dinner ended the season priced at $99 - up from $69 a year ago - including a soup or salad and side dishes, said Sheri Bilbrey, Truluck's special event coordinator.

The restaurant plans to continue the Monday special throughout the year, switching to Campeche or Pacific coast stone crabs after the Florida season ends. Bilbrey said she expects the price to come down compared with the local product.

Florida's stone crab fishery is fully exploited and claw sizes are down, which indicates that fishermen are catching them faster than they used to, said Tom Matthews, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"The number of traps is largely inflated. Last year, we had over a million traps to land 2.7 million pounds of claws. It's hard to make a living with those numbers," Matthews said. "And all that extra gear has unintended consequences," he added, including habitat destruction and "ghost fishing" where lost traps continue catching and killing crabs that never come to market.

Stone crab season reopens Oct. 15.

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