September 30, 2014

Adventure. Worry. Delight.

Pick-up artist: Crabber Robbie Borgerding prepares to pull in a run of traps off the coast of Captiva Island. Once the catch is cleared, he will put a frozen pig foot from the wire baskets in each trap as bait.For Florida seafood lovers, as well as crabbers and restaurant managers, Oct. 15 is circled on the calendar. It’s the start of the seven-month season for stone crab, the distinctive taste of Florida for which there is an insatiable global appetite.

Connoisseurs of the meaty claws reserve tables at Truluck’s Seafood, Steak and Crab House in Naples, show up hungry at Pincher’s Crab Shack in Fort Myers and stand in line at Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach. The crabbers, crab fishery managers and restaurateurs greet the day with excitement and worry.

For Robbie Borgerding and Scott "Fish" Fisher, opening day of the 2011 stone crab season was a lot of rough weather and precious few crabs. The next day was no better. Borgerding, 29, and Fisher, 54, live near Bokeelia on Pine Island. They’ve been fishing and crabbing together for a couple of years. Both have been on the water most of their lives.

The first week of crabbing was so bad that by Friday they were contemplating a change. "If we don’t get 100 pounds of crab today, we’re going fishing tomorrow," Borgerding said.

"We may go fishing anyway," Fisher said.

By 6 that Friday morning, Borgerding had already dropped his three-year-old daughter at day care, and he and Fisher had loaded seven boxes of bait—in this case, frozen pig feet marked "Inedible Not Intended For Human Food"—onto the 18-foot crab boat. They headed out through Pine Island Sound to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico west of Captiva Island, where two weeks earlier they had set 1,000 milk-crate-size traps made from PVC or wooden slats, each weighted with an inch of concrete. The traps are attached to buoys the size of plastic trick-or-treat pumpkins. Each crabber’s buoys bear a distinctive color pattern for easy identification.

The sun rose orange and then pink and finally yellow over the expensive homes on the shore as the crabbers bounced through the break water and cranked up AC/DC on the marine radio.

At 7:45 a.m., they found the red and white buoys that distinguish their traps. Borgerding slid on his work clothes—rubber boots and overalls, protective sleeves over his forearms, cloth gloves, sunglasses and a visor over his short blonde hair. He’s an angular man who nine years ago crushed both of his legs in a car crash a few blocks from his home on the island. He said he walks better now on the rolling boat than on land.

Fisher took the wheel of the boat and edged it close enough to the first buoy so that Borgerding could snag its line with a five-foot-long wooden-handle gaff and haul the line into the boat. He wrapped the line around a pulley on a hydraulic winch, which yanked the trap up to a metal table, triggering the table to snap upright with a violent clatter. Borgerding tossed the buoy and line overboard and opened the trap. He pulled out a stone crab and measured its claw against a gauge mounted on the winch. The legal size is 2 3/4 inches. He also had to take care to not harvest an "egger," a female bearing eggs.

Cracked claws: Stone crab claws can regenerate. After they are harvested, crabbers will toss their catch back in hopes of pulling it back again next year.He deftly snapped the claws from the crab and tossed the body back into the water. (Stone crab can regenerate claws, leading many to call stone crabs a renewable resource. Many crabbers just pull one claw as the crabs have a much greater chance of surviving with a working claw than with none. About 20 percent of the claws harvested each year are regenerated ones.) Borgerding inspected the trap—he would replace broken slats by nailing a new one in place if necessary—tossed in a fresh pig’s foot and set the trap on the table to be released when Fisher steered close to the next buoy.

The entire process took about 30 seconds. And he would repeat it about 250 times, almost nonstop, for the next nine hours. "You do this all day and you sleep good at night," Borgerding said. "I love this time of year. I get back in shape, lose 30 pounds."

By noon, Borgerding and Fisher had run two lines, 150 traps, and they hadn’t filled a collection basket that holds about 50 pounds of claws.

"It doesn’t look like it’s going to be too good of a crab season," Borgerding said. "If they ain’t any around here, where they going to come from?"

A week earlier, on the opening day of stone crab season, Truluck’s Managing General Partner Rick Rinella and his executive chef, David Nolen, had similar worries as they arrived at the docks of Capri Fisheries on Isle of Capri near Marco Island. One hundred fifty-three days they’d been waiting, and the first two small boats had brought bad news. The catch so far: 40 pounds, mostly medium claws, already cooked, cooled and sorted, Fishery Manager Antonio Almazan reported.

Chef Nolan grimaced. Rinella remained optimistic. "I love it," he said. "Because you never know what you’re going to get. I’m excited. I get excited seeing it come in."

That Saturday nine more of the crab boats that supply Capri Fisheries—and through them the national chain of Truluck’s restaurants—would bring in their first-day catch. But from dockside to loading dock, the first-day jitters were almost palpable.

By the time fishery manager Almazan and his staff finished their work, it was 4:30 a.m. Sunday, and the legs of crabs pulled from traps off the coast of Southwest Florida half-a-day earlier had been packed in iced boxes and jetted off to Texas and California. Later that evening Houstonians and San Diegans would savor the signature seafood of Florida. Around 2,000 pounds of crab legs, all told. That’s what the Capri facility had committed to supply the chain’s 11 outlets.

This was just the start of the 250,000 to 260,000 pounds of stone crab Truluck’s locations sell each year. "That’s what our entire concept is marketed around," Rinella said.

Rinella and Truluck’s aren’t alone in their dependence on Florida’s dividend–liest catch. Fort Myers-based Pinchers Crab Shack, with seven locations from Sarasota to Naples, claims to be the second-largest retail purveyor of stone crab in the country. And the largest, Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach, which began serving up what was then thought of as trash fish 99 years ago, sells an average of 400,000 pounds a year.

Looking better: For Scott Baker, the catch picked up after a disappointing start.Last season, 2.74 million pounds of stone crab claws were pulled from Florida waters, with a total wholesale value of $25 million. That doesn’t include the associated benefits to fuel suppliers, boat maintainers, bait suppliers, transporters, fishery workers, overnight deliverers, restaurant employees, public relations firms and advertising agencies.

Stone crabbing amounts to a healthy chunk of economic impact trickling up from the dark seabed. And much of it originates off the Gulfshore. About 98 percent of the total stone crab landings in the state are off the west coast, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture. Collier and Monroe counties typically account for more than half the catch.

At Capri Fisheries, the next two boats of the season were larger, and when they hauled up a couple of 50-pound baskets each, tension eased on the dock. "I’m feeling better," Almazan said. He pulled off his black ball cap, whose crown featured a silver crab silhouette, and ran a hand across his thick graying hair. "But I’m afraid I’m still going to be short of 2,000 pounds."

Worry. It’s the nature of stone crabbing. From the Keys to Everglades City, on Isles of Capri in Collier County and St. James City on Pine Island up the coast in Lee County to points north on the Gulf Coast, such as Cortez and Crystal River, crabbers, fishery managers and seafood restaurateurs fret out the opening days of the stone crab season every bit as much as Midwestern farmers agonize over the coming corn or wheat harvest. Perhaps even more so because the stone crab business is beset by whims of the waters off Florida even less predictable than Iowa’s rain totals.

A red tide bloom beginning in 2003 lowered the catch for several seasons. Five days into the 2006 season, Hurricane Wilma ripped through Everglades City on the mouth of the Barron River on Chokoloskee Bay in southern Collier County. There were 30 crabbers in the town, and together they’d invested $200,000 in 20,680 stone crab traps. After the storm, 2,400 traps survived. And in 2008, wholesale prices of stone crab claws dropped $2.50 a pound after the national economic crisis sapped the demand for high-priced seafood.

Not so much now. "The demand for restaurants is strong," Rinella said. "We’ve got to have crab. When we have all-you-can-eat night on Mondays, we’ll likely go through 250 to 300 pounds."

The largest stone crab retailers have invested in their own fisheries. Joe’s is supplied by Keys Fishery in Marathon. Truluck’s owns Capri Fisheries. And Pincher’s Crab Shack owns Island Crab Fishery in St. James City.

Typically, the fisheries contract with local crabbers to exclusively buy their catch. The fisheries can maintain supply and regulate prices, and the crabbers are assured of a steady market. The fisheries often provide the crabbers the upfront cost of fuel, bait and other expenses and allow the crabbers to pay off the loans at no interest as the season progresses.

Gulf gold: On a per-pound basis, stone crab claws are now the most valuable catch in the Gulf of Mexico."There’s a lot of risk involved with stone crabbing," said Dan Ellinor, commercial liaison with the Fish and Wildlife Commission. "A trap alone costs $25 to $30. Then you have to pay for rope and buoys. You have to buy pigs’ feet for bait and maintain your boat. And there’s a certificate for each trap that goes from $4 to $6 each."

As a result of the expense, there’s a trend for crabbers to work with large fisheries, Ellinor said. "You definitely have to have someone to buy your product. A lot of the little guys have to find their own little niche."

One of the consequences of the large crab fisheries, for better or worse, is a kind of domino effect on prices. The market is usually set by the Keys Fishery and Joe’s. And much of the early-season anxiety centers on the establishment of wholesale prices. It’s a tricky question, Rinella admits. "You have to set a price that makes the crabbers happy," he said. "You have to set a price so the fishery breaks even. And you have to set a price that makes the restaurants happy." His best guess was that eventually the wholesale market would settle at somewhere around $13 a pound.

The dock manager at Capri Fisheries, Mark Nolan, is a lifelong resident of Marco Island. He got his first boat at 11, and he’s been fishing and crabbing ever since. "You just have your experience, what worked before," Nolan said. "You’ve got a lot of numbers, but numbers change. When they start moving, you’ve got to chase them. Some years are better than others. It’s part of the chase.

"I do know this. I’d hate to be new at it, just starting out now."

Whatever changes occur in the market, though, the crabber’s job stays pretty much the same as it always has been. Crabbers in relatively small boats ply the waters from a few hundred yards to 15 miles offshore from sunup to sundown. Stone crabs are truly handcrafted. Each claw on the plate has been plucked by a crabber’s hand from a crab that got flung back into the sea.

After running three lines, 225 traps, Borgerding and Fisher had for their efforts one full basket of crab claws and another about a quarter full. That amounted to maybe 70 pounds. It was 3 p.m. They were tired and discouraged, but they decided to run one more line before heading home.

Borgerding lipped a cigarette from a pack of smokes and took his place in the stern. The first trap he pulled yielded three massive crabs. On they went, north, seven miles west of Captiva Island. With a patient, practiced rhythm, Borgerding pulled up trap after trap containing a squirming crab. Often there were two or three.

Sea to table: Some of the men responsible for bringing delicious claws from the Gulf to the plates. Clockwise from top left: fisherman Jose Mora; fisherman Adolfo Cruz; Truluck’s Managing Partner Rick Rinella; Capri fisheries cook Mike Hoag."This is more like it," Borgerding yelled over the groan of the diesel engine. "This is crabbing like it’s supposed to be."

By the time they ran the 75 traps on the line, the second basket was full. They’d taken more than 100 pounds for the day. Borgerding hosed seaweed and crab shells from the deck with water from the bilge pump. He stripped off his rubber overalls and wet gloves, lit another smoke and settled in at the wheel. He throttled up the engine and headed for home. "Not a bad day at the office," he said. "Better than last week."

"Weatherwise and crabwise," Fisher agreed. He picked two or three of the largest claws from a basket. "That’s maybe $45 right there. Maybe we’ll actually get paid this week. It’s a lot more fun fishing for grouper, but sometimes you can actually make money doing this. I guess we’ll be crabbing again tomorrow."

"We’ll go fishing next week," Borgerding promised.

"Whatever," Fisher said. "As long as we’re out on the water."

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