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Stone crab rebound continues as catch nears 3 million pounds

CORTEZ — The end of stone crab season today marks the second year of a rebound with a harvest of about 3 million pounds of claws valued at $30 million.

“This year, the preliminary data through April was that we’re approaching 2.5 million pounds,” said Ryan Gandy, a research scientist with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission in St. Petersburg. “So we’re on track for this season to be pretty close to last year.”

That estimate surprised Karen Bell at the A.P. Bell Fish Company in Cortez. “I think we had a better year this year,” she said. “This was a good year. It was pretty steady. One of the holidays, we didn’t have much — Christmas or New Year’s, I forget which one.”

Bell expects a Monday rush of stone crab fans at her Star Fish Company Dockside Restaurant. “We’re about to do the last batch of stone crab chowder,” she said. “We only do it in season.”

The Florida stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15. Crabbers string traps up and down the Gulf Coast. When they pull crabs from a trap, they break off the claws, which grow back, and then toss the crabs back into the water.

Bell remembers several lean years for stone crabs. In 2012-13, the catch was 2.1 million pounds. In 2013-14, it fell to a low of 1.9 million pounds. In 2014-15, that number rose to 2.2 million pounds. Last year, it was 3.1 million pounds worth $33.4 million.