Stone crabs elude fishermen, driving up prices

- At Fresh Catch Fish Market in Sarasota, Devon Provost does his best to keep stone crabs stocked.  They're enough to make your mouth water. 

"We sold out of jumbo and colossal and almost all our larges," Provost said. "We go through at least 10 pounds minimum on a slow night. We go up to 30 pounds easily a night." 

It hasn't been easy. Provost said fisherman are having a hard time finding them. 

"Yesterday, when he was pulling crabs, he only pulled 50 pounds and he's used to doing 300 to 400," said Provost. 

"At the very beginning, we were getting about an eighth of a pound to a trap, which is pretty bad. We like to see a pound, plus," said Cody Cole, one of the fishermen on the hunt.

The low supply has led to higher prices for what's supposed to be a sustainable fishery. Claws are pulled from the crab and the crab is tossed back to re-grow its missing claw. The question this year is, where have they gone? 

"It kind of makes you second-guess yourself. It's very expensive to move a lot of gear from place to place. You'll hear 40 to 50 miles up the coast they're doing really well and you kind of debate, do you move the gear? Do we wait? Will the crab move down here?" continued Cole. 

Some blame Hurricane Irma for pushing them into deeper water. Doctor Philip Gravinese with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium believes environmental factors are to blame. 

"Historically, if you look at the last 10 or 12 years, the annual catch of claws seems to be on a declining trend by about 25 percent," said Dr. Gravinese. 

He said red tide has a big impact, but there are other factors as well. 

"Low PH reduces their hatching success by about 30 percent. So that's something that is a little concerning. We've also noticed increases in temperature by two degrees results in a very significant decrease in the larval survivorship," he said. 

Doctor Gravinese will lead a discussion on the stone crab fishery on March 12. For more information visit https://mote.org/events/details/special-lecture-series-dr.-phil-gravinese 

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