FORT MYERS - A third of the way through Florida's stone crab season, those who fish for them are frustrated by a weak harvest and they're wondering what's happening to their lucrative catch.
Florida is the nation's largest stone crab producer, and Gulf Coast crabbers bring in most of the state's load. In the past five seasons, which last from Oct. 15 to May 15, they caught 98 percent of the state's 15.8-million pounds of stone crab claws.
But the past two years have been hard on Florida crabbers. In the 2001-02 season, they hauled in 1.7-million pounds of claws, just more than half of the 3.25-million pound average for the previous four seasons.
"It's been pitiful, really bad around here," said Danny Holloway, manager of the Lee County Fishermen's Cooperative on Pine Island.
Scientists point to a number of theories, including the pressure of a large crabbing industry, which sets about a million traps, and a growth in the population of octopi, a stone crab predator.
"It's hard to say whether it's a natural phenomenon or fishing pressure," said Theresa Bert, senior research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute. Because the state doesn't monitor the crustacean, she said, it's difficult to predict population trends.
A glimmer of hope is the number of undersized crabs trapped lately. Bert said that when tiny crabs appear, there often is a good harvest in two or three years later when they grow to legal size.