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Will Hurricane Irma drive up stone crab prices this season?

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 Oct. 15.

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.”

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.”

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.

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-sizeclaws 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 March 31.

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.”

Amen, and pass the mustard sauce.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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