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Stone crab shortage causing price surge before holidays | Video

Stone crab season started bountifully despite Hurricane Irma’s devastation, but the claws have mysteriously gone scarce in recent weeks. The shortage has left crabbers, seafood stores and consumers in a pinch before the high-demand holiday season.

“We’re all trying to figure out what happened to them,” Chris Culbreth, general manager at Catfish Dewey’s restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, said Thursday. “The traps just started coming up empty.”

Not just empty but also covered in barnacles, crab industry veterans said. Footage posted on Facebook by a Florida Keys fisherman shows barnacles coating dead lobsters and crabs inside. Typically, live stone crabs are trapped and released after one claw is removed during the Oct. 15-May 15 season.

“This is bad,” said Greg D’Agostino, general manager of Keys Fisheries in Marathon, which operates a fleet of 24 crabbing vessels and provides crabs to Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach.

Scientists and crabbers have been speculating on the cause, with possible culprits including warm weather and heavy rainfall in November, large freshwater release from Lake Okeechobee and canals disrupting the crop, and even last week’s super moon. The industry hopes a recent cold snap and northern winds spur crabs back into traps.

Judith Silva, who runs King Seafood in Marathon and whose husband and brother-in-law operate a crabbing vessel, said they used to haul in 250 to 300 pounds of crab during a weekly sweep of 600 traps. “Now, they’re only pulling in 40 to 50 pounds,” Silva said Thursday.

The result has been empty display bins and a dramatic price spike at local markets.

“I’ve seen shortages before, but never like this,” said Jose Sanchez, seafood manager at Delaware Chicken and Seafood Market in Hollywood for the past 23 years.

On Thursday, clerks told customers that orders placed for Christmas and New Year’s Eve might not be filled. “This is a fresh product. We don’t sell them frozen in season, and we just don’t know if we’re going to have enough,” Sanchez said.

The store has seen supplies shrink and has raised prices by $5 to $6 a pound in the past month. The store typically sells 1,500 pounds of stone crab weekly, Sanchez said, but sales have dipped to less than 500 pounds a week this month.

“The price is scaring people right now,” Sanchez said. “It’s cheaper to get Maine lobster.”

Medium-size claws were back in the display case Thursday after being absent earlier this week. The price: $23.99 a pound, up from $17.99 a pound in November, a 33 percent increase. Large claws were priced at $36.99 a pound, jumbos at $45.99 and colossals at $47.99.

The flavor and texture of stone crabs have not been affected by recent events, Sanchez said. I bought a pound of mediums on Thursday, and they were sweet and did not stick to the shell.

Catfish Dewey’s has been forced to halt its popular all-you-can-eat stone crab promotion earlier this week because of tight supplies. Usually offered every day, it might be offered only sporadically and in limited amounts. “We’re doing 20 or 25 today, first come, first served,” Culbreth said. The price: $84 for mediums. Earlier this year, the price was $59.

“This is a big concern for us, because stone crabs are one of our top sellers, and people come from all over the tricounty area for the promotion,” Culbreth said.

D’Agostino said Joe’s Stone Crab buys from numerous suppliers, and he heard they’re still meeting demand. But he couldn’t answer whether the venerable restaurant, which ships worldwide, may have to resort to its emergency frozen supply. I reached out to Steve Sawitz, Joe’s owner, by email but did not hear back.

The shortage couldn’t come at a worse time for South Florida’s commercial fishing industry after it got walloped by Hurricane Irma in September. Irma wiped out the heart of lobster season, with many fishers losing traps and boats.

They had high hopes to recover during stone crab season, particularly during peak demand around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

D’Agostino says his full fleet is still going out, but Sanchez said some other fishermen have gone on hiatus after losing money with each trip. Hauls are so tiny they do not cover the cost of fuel, bait and labor, Silva said.

And the situation has become more complicated by the thick coating of barnacles. “They’re like cement,” Silva said. “And they cover up the trap holes, which makes it harder for the crabs to crawl in.”

Silva’s brother-in-law, Antonio Pinero, shot footage of crusted traps pulled onto his vessel on Nov. 30 and posted it on Facebook. The traps had been in the water for 10 days, and when opened, some revealed dead, barnacle-covered lobsters and crabs. D’Agastino said his fishermen have also seen barnacle-coated lobsters.

“It’s happened in the past, but never like this,” he said. “We’ve started pulling our traps up after fewer days.”

Silva said the barnacles take extra time and labor to remove, adding costs to an already losing proposition. “My husband usually waits until May 13 to start pulling in traps, but he’s already taken some in,” she said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Ryan Gandy, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who tracks the crab haul, told the Miami Herald, “We really don’t know why [traps have started coming up empty]. We know [the crabs] move when the water gets churned up.”

At the Delaware Chicken and Seafood Market on Thursday, Nicole Lozano was relieved to see stone crabs on ice and didn’t care what she had to pay.

“I came all the way from Miami Beach — I can’t find them anywhere,” Lozano said. Her usual seafood store, Casablanca on the Miami River, hasn’t had crabs all week. “I’m a South Florida native. I need them.”

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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