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Crabs are 'playing possum' from traps

Crabbers feel pinched by scanty catches. The problem? Mild weather means crabs don't have cover from predators and are reluctant to move around.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


HOMOSASSA -- Even before his boat leaves the docks behind Cedar Key Fish and Oyster Co., Bill Dunlap is down $1,000. There's the crew to pay and fuel to buy, plus a pallet brimming with boxes of pigs' feet.

The overhead, which does not include wear and tear on his men or equipment, is high, but stone crabbing can be a lucrative trade. A single boat can generate $250,000 in a good year.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Tammy Kay settled back into the dock with a final burp of white exhaust, 15 hours after it left.

Dunlap, 60, looked disappointed as he examined the catch.

"It was a crummy day, a little less than break even," he said as the crew pulled three 65-pound baskets of crab claws onto a pickup truck. "You're going backwards when you break even."

Dunlap's frustration is shared by many stone crabbers. The season, which began Oct. 15 and runs through May 15, has so far been a bust.

"It's way off a typical, average start," said Bob Gill, who runs Cedar Key Fish and Oyster Co. and Shrimp Landing in Crystal River.

"The men are not quite at the point at which they won't go out, but some aren't going out as often," Gill said.

At Cedar Key, about 2,000 pounds of claws are processed each night, with the average boat coming in with 250 pounds.

Last season, one of the best in recent memory, the figure was closer to 5,000 pounds per night at Cedar Key. All told, more than 534,000 pounds of claws were harvested in Citrus County. The dockside value was $3.1-million.

Blame the mild weather for this season's sluggish start.

Without westerly winds to stir the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, providing cover from octopus and other predators, crabs are hesitant to move about.

So when fishermen pull up their traps, baited with pigs' feet or mullet, they are often empty.

"Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of crabs out there. They're playing possum right now," said Hank Sevor, who has been crabbing for nearly half his 40 years.

When a crab is inside the trap, it is quickly removed and measured. If big enough, fishermen snap off both pincers and throw the body back into the water.

The technique is to grasp a claw with one hand, the crab with the other, and twist down and away from the body.

As a natural defense, the crab will drop the claw with a clean, bloodless break, and begin growing a new one. Crabs usually can regrow their claws three or four times during their lifetime.

There is a small upside to the scarcity of crabs. Prices have generally been higher as the catches have decreased.

On opening day, fishermen were getting $4.25 per pound of medium claws and $8 for large. Now the prices are $5.50 and $9.50 respectively.

Despite the shaky economy, demand from restaurants in Orlando, Miami and New York is high, said Tim Edge, who manages Shrimp Landing.

The problem is filling the orders.

A distributor may ask for 600 to 800 pounds per week but Edge can only spare 50 pounds. "It's not a situation where you have crabs in South Florida but not here," he said. "Nobody has them."

-- Alex Leary can be reached at (352) 564-3623 or leary@sptimes.com.

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