"I'm praying to the stone-crab gods right now," said Stephen Sawitz, two hours before his family's Joe's Stone Crab was set to open for its 100th season Tuesday afternoon. "I'm praying for a healthy harvest."
At the first 5 p.m. seating, Joe's served frozen claws from the end of last May's harvest. This year's fresh catch will hit South Florida restaurants and fish markets Wednesday.
Stone crabs are a throwback to a time when food had seasons. You ate asparagus in spring and sweet corn in late summer. Florida's stone-crab season runs Oct. 15 through May 15. End of story. The meat is sweeter than lobster, more tender than other crab species and more expensive than just about any other seafood.
Last year's shortage caused prices to skyrocket. Jumbo claws at Joe's were being sold for as much as $85 per order. That's 1 1/2 pounds. They often cost $20 less.
"There have been worse seasons," Sawitz said. "I've heard about them from my mom and grandmother."
Joe's made adjustments by tightening margins on medium claws and serving more Alaskan king crab legs. This year, the restaurant is offering Certified Angus Beef for the first time.
Ryan Gandy, who studies stone crabs at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said last year's season was down 26 percent from the previous year. Monroe County, where much of South Florida's supply is landed, was down 30 percent.
"We see these oscillations," Gandy said. "You're dealing with a wild product, and their populations are going to vary from season to season."
While everything from algae to octopus and the 2010 BP oil spill has been blamed for last year's poor harvest, Gandy said he can't scientifically point to one particular reason.
Based on trends, however, he believes Monroe County is set for one more bad year before the cycle turns around.
"What you have to remember is if we could get some good, rough weather and some cold fronts, that gets those crabs moving around," he said. "It could be a good start of the year."
At Old Dixie Seafood in Boca Raton, co-owners and brothers Kerry and Larry Siemsen are hoping for the best. They've rehired seasonal employees to help deal with increased business that comes with stone-crab season at their 17-year-old market.
"Since we've been in business, last year was the hardest year for stone crabs," Kerry Siemsen said. "But at New Year's alone, we still sold 1,500 pounds."
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