Despite the lingering covid pandemic and new state regulations that shortened the season and upped the minimum size for claws, Florida’s 2020-21 stone crab harvest appears to have improved from the year before and looks strong going into October’s 2021-22 season opening.

“This year was better than last year,” said Gary Graves, operator of Keys Fisheries in Marathon — the state’s major stone crab producer. “The market was good. Even with restaurants closed, there was enough e-commerce business. I expect a normal year. Prices will be strong. I feel good about the season coming.”

While state harvest data for the season that closed May 2 is incomplete, Graves estimates production at between 1.9 million and 2 million pounds — what he calls a “normal” year. He said boat prices ranged from $10 per pound for medium claws all the way up to between $28 and $29 for colossal.

“It was as high as it’s ever been, and I don’t see that falling off,” Graves said. “There’s enough people that want that crab. It’s a delicacy, a boutique fishery.”

Asked if he felt any impact from Florida’s new regulations that shortened the season by two weeks and increased the minimum size of claws by 1/8 inch, Graves said the shorter season “probably helped a little bit,” but that gauging the effects of the larger claw requirements would take about three to four years. Graves was among a group of industry representatives who helped the state to formulate the tighter rules that aim to rebuild the stock from a steady decline since the 1990s. Another provision will require escape rings on traps beginning in the 2023-24 season.

“The goal was a five-year plan to gain 1 million pounds,” Graves said, adding “we are going to have to have some trap reduction. The state allowed too many [trap] certificates. The fishery is over-capitalized.”

Captain Shane Dooley, who runs stone crab traps in the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers, was satisfied with last season and looking forward to the next.

“We had to work at it, but yeah, it was a pretty good year,” Dooley said. He said boat prices for jumbos were around $25, and while he missed out on some mediums because of the new claw rules, he managed to catch enough larger crabs to make up for it.

He said he’s already building his new traps with escape rings in advance of the state rule in hopes they will select for the larger-sized crabs.

Sue Cocking spent more than 20 years as the outdoors writer at the Miami Herald, covering everything from commercial and recreational fishing to powerboat racing and scuba diving. She once worked as a light-tackle charter boat fishing captain in Key West and had an 18-year career in radio news broadcasting. She lives in Sebastian, Fla.

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