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First batch

Stone crab season off to slow start but local commercial fishermen hopeful

October 24, 2012
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Pine Island Eagle

The first day of the 2012 stone crab season was a slow day for commercial fishermen - a situation they hoped would change as the seven-month season progressed.

Eddie Barnhill Jr., a third generation fisherman on Pine Island, said they needed a cold front to come through with some south, southwest, north or northwest winds to create bigger waves to stir up the bottom of the ocean in order to catch more stone crabs.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Amanda Nalley said in 2011, 2,666,954 pounds of stone crab were brought to shore commercially statewide, which had an estimated harvested value of $23,585,979. The average dockside price of a stone crab claw was $8.85.

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Monday, Oct. 15, kicked off stone crab season, which provided a busy afternoon at the Barnhill Fisheries Inc. crab house.

She said in 2010, there were 2,599,010 pounds brought to shore commercially, with an estimated harvested value of $23,708,871. The average dockside price of a stone crab claw was $9.12.

"These numbers are about average for the past several years," Nalley said.

She said stone crabs brought to shore could go up and down for a variety of reasons, including natural events such as weather or red tide, an increase or decrease in demand, an increase or decrease in the number of harvesters or wholesale dealers in that county.

The commercial stone crabs brought to shore in Lee County in 2011, Nalley said, was 189,367 pounds and 269,240 pounds in 2010.

Barnhill and his crew set out early Monday, Oct. 15, to check the traps they began throwing into the water Oct. 5. They went out about 35 miles and pulled 700 traps, which will be an average day until the season closes in May.

Nalley said so far in the 2012-2013 fiscal year there are 1,106,794 active stone crab trap certificates.

"This number is preliminary and could change," she said, adding that every commercial trap must have a certificate. "Keep in mind, not all of these trap certificates may have been used, but most are."

In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, there were 1,230,811 active stone crab trap certificates.

In addition, Nalley said commercial harvesters are required to have a stone crab endorsement, which, so far during the 2012-2013 fiscal year, there have been 1,326 stone crab endorsements issued, compared to 1,412 during the 2011-2012 fiscal year and 1,343 during the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

"One stone crab trapper may hold multiple endorsements, let's say, if the crabber has multiple boats," she said. "He might have an endorsement for each boat, and one for himself as well."

Once the commercial fishermen dock their boats and drop off their catches of the day, there are many steps that have to be taken at the Barnhill Fisheries crab house before they can be sold wholesale.

Mark Jacques, who is in charge of cooking the stone crabs at the fish house, said he typically receives deliveries from the fishermen between 3-6 p.m. every day. He said although the cut-off time for stone crab to be dropped off is 6 p.m., the fishermen can drop them off later if they call and let him know.

Some days, Jacques said, he is at the crab house until 10 p.m. cooking the stone crabs from that day.

Jacques said the stone crabs are first weighed before they are dumped in a basket or bag, which are then accompanied by a tag that holds the fisherman's initials.

The first cook of the season was 179 pounds of stone crab Oct. 15, which Barnhill brought in with his crew a little after 2 p.m.

Barnhill said he got back to the docks a little earlier than a typical day because people were picking up stone crab later Monday night.

Once the cooker, a large stainless steel pot that can hold up to 400 pounds of stone crab, reaches a boil, the basket is then lowered into the water to cook for 12 minutes.

Once the cooker is turned on, it remains on until the last batch of stone crab is cooked.

When the timer goes off it tells Jacques that the basket has to be lifted out of the cooker and into another steel container that is packed with ice for 15 minutes. He said the second step is important because the cold water shrinks the meat a little bit, so it does not stick to the shell.

The pink stone crabs are lifted out of the water on an overhead track system that then guides the large basket to a steel table where they are dumped to be graded into different batches.

The sizes for the stone crab include medium 0-2.99 ounces, large 3-4.99 ounces, jumbo 5-6.99 ounces and colossal 7 ounces and up.

Once the stone crabs are weighed, they are then placed in different colored baskets to be boxed up before they are wholesaled out to restaurants and markets. The restaurants and market also includes Barnhill's Seafood Spot and the Seafood Market.

Barnhill said what they catch will be used at the restaurant that night, to ensure freshness for the customers.

"We can always sell a fresh product," he said.

Barnhill said they wholesale to this side of the coast as much as possible, before they start providing stone crab to the other coast.

In addition, he said the crab house delivers stone crabs three days a week from Matlacha to Naples.

The crab house is buzzing seven days a week, once the fishermen are done pulling traps for the day.

"As long as boats are going, we are open," Barnhill said.



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