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."
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