Around the State- Northeast- June 2001
Soft-shell crabbers in northeast Florida say a flood of competition is threatening their livelihood.
By Clennon King
Martin and Anne Dunson point to a stretch of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville that soft-shell crabbers affectionately call "Ripoff Point." Back in the 1980s, bait-hungry sports fishermen would steal their catch from crab pots anchored in the area.
That was 20 years ago, when the Dunsons were big fish in the otherwise empty pond of soft-shell crabbing in Florida. Now, the Dunsons' greatest threat isn't thieving fishermen, but the sharp rise in the number of crabbers who have entered the small-but-growing $1.7-million industry. "I used to make a good living with just 100 crab pots," says Martin Dunson, of Pomona Park. Catching the same amount of crabs these days has become a challenge. "Now, I need 1,500 pots to turn a profit," he says.
Dunson, who founded the First Coast Soft Crab Co. in Putnam County in 1980, has been the victim of competitive forces before. In the 1960s, he made a living catfishing, until government subsidies created competition, and large-scale corporate-owned farms took over the industry. In the early 1980s, he owned and operated a crab meat processing plant in Welaka until cheaper Asian crab imports flooded the market, effectively putting him out of business.
For a time after he moved into the soft-shell crab business, there was little competition and lots of profit to be made. But the winds of a changing market blew in his direction, courtesy of the state.
After a ban on net fishing put some fishermen out of work, Florida's Department of Agriculture officials began sending displaced fishermen to the growing soft-shell industry, offering them training, supplies and subsidies.
Having prospered without subsidies, Dunson understandably wasn't pleased. With the number of state blue crab permits doubling between 1986 and 1994, Dunson began working to address the sudden growth. As vice president of the Organized Fishermen of Florida (OFF), he helped persuade the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to place a moratorium on new commercial permits for blue crabs -- from which soft-shell crabs are cultivated.
But a loophole in the law still allows crabbers to fish as many pots as they please, something Dunson and OFF members are negotiating with regulators to limit.
At stake, say industry insiders, are livelihoods and lots of money. Florida soft-shell crabs are a valuable commodity, especially from Feb. 1 to the end of April, when they can fetch up to $42 a dozen from wholesalers in New York and Baltimore. After May 1, the price drops to about $22 a dozen as warm weather inches northward, allowing crabbers in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina to add to the supply.
At 56, Dunson's not about to start from scratch in another industry. "I'm not against competition," Dunson says, "just bad regulation."
In the News
Alachua County -- Rechargeable battery maker Moltech Power Systems has cut another 40 salaried and administrative positions at its Gainesville-area operation. Since January, the company has laid off 390 of the 600 workers at its Alachua facility.
International accounting firm CPAmerica has opened its $1.8-million offices in Alachua County, with 40 employees.
Flagler County -- Economic development officials hope to join Cornerstone, Jacksonville chamber's regional economic development program serving the northeast region. The program is credited with luring a BellSouth technical center to Clay County and a Wal-Mart distribution center to Baker County and attracting more than 1,600 jobs.
Gainesville -- Alltel Corp. is closing its Gainesville customer service center, eliminating at least 10 jobs. The company said 105 of its 2,900 Florida workers would lose their jobs as a part of a companywide move to streamline operations.
Green Cove Springs -- The United Food and Commercial Workers Inter-national Union is investigating whether Food Lion closed its local distribution center to squash union activities.
Jacksonville -- The Jacksonville Downtown Development Authority approved a $75-million incentives package in May for TriLegacy Group LLC to redevelop the Jacksonville shipyards into a large residential, commercial and retail center.
Universal Beverages Holdings Corp. announced plans to close its Jacksonville headquarters, cutting three jobs, and consolidate with its Leesburg bottling plant.
The Chicago-based executive search firm of Kennedy & Co. has opened a Jacksonville office.
BJ's Wholesale Club has confirmed it is looking for a site to build a 500,000-sq.-ft. distribution center that would employ 200 in north Florida.
Collins Development Co. will break ground in October on a 500-acre residential community with 850 homes near Cecil Field.
Atlanta developer Julian LeCraw plans to convert half of his 340-unit Grand Reserve apartments at Windsor Parke into condominiums. He is also considering whether to convert Jacksonville Beach's Days Inn into a condo.
United Airlines' Jacksonville-based employees will be offered other employment opportunities in July, when the carrier will be converting service at Jacksonville International Airport from United Airlines jets to 50-seater Canadair regional jets.
Landstar System (Nasdaq-LSTR) reported record first-quarter earnings of $8.4 million, up from $8.3 million for the same period the year before.
Rayonier (NYSE-RYN) is expected to sell 57,000 acres of timberland to Florida and the St. Johns River Water Management District for $60 million. The tract will complete the largest public wildlife corridor east of the Mississippi River.
Cornerstone Group Development Corp. announced plans to build the $6-million, 388-unit Mallard's Landing Apartments near the I-295/I-95 interchange.
Nassau County -- Wildwood Properties Group, developer of the new 2,400-home Villages at Westport community on the Northside, is planning a 600-home community in Nassau County.
Ocala -- Wal-Mart opened a 225,000-sq.-ft. supercenter, its fourth in Marion County. The store will employ 600.
Cingular Wireless, the nation's second-largest wireless communications company, will open a call center that will create between 600 and 900 jobs. The company
is closing its call centers in Lake Mary, Melbourne and Boca Raton, consolidating those positions at the Ocala center.
All 13 local employees of Republic Security Bank will lose their jobs when the local branch and two retail locations close in July to merge with Wachovia Bank of North Carolina.
St. Augustine -- Amtrak and Florida East Coast Railway are discussing a deal to bring passenger rail service to St. Augustine, according to a company spokesman. If a deal is inked, passenger rail service would be the first since 1960 to serve the area. Stops would include Daytona Beach, Cocoa, Vero Beach and Melbourne.
St. Johns County -- The Sierra Club has challenged a rezoning order by the St. Johns County Commission to make way for the planned community of Nocatee.