The common octopus (file photo)
Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press.com) - An eight-legged mollusk with a big appetite has once again threatened to wreck Lee County's commercial stone crab season.
Hordes of octopuses have invaded the area and are turning trapped stone crabs into piles of shell fragments.
"They're real thick offshore; past 30 feet deep, we're catching a lot of them," commercial fisherman Shane Dooley said. "Some traps have two or three in them. They eat the crabs as soon as they get in, and they go from trap to trap."
All of Island Crab Co. owner Jeff Haugland's traps are in 40 to 55 feet of water.
"It's like a desert out there," he said. "My boats are seeing plenty of octopus, and they're seeing no stone crab, almost less than none. They brought in 100 traps yesterday and four pounds of claws. Two days before that, they pulled 98 traps and got one claw."
Octopuses are a stone crab's and a commercial stone crabber's worst nightmare.
They're voracious predators; they love stone crabs; they can easily crawl into and out of stone crab traps; and they're smart.
"I have thousands of hours working with them; they're amazing animals," said octopus expert Ron Toll, provost and vice president for academic affairs at FGCU. "They'll go where the food is. They'll also go where the shelter is. If they find a place where they can grab a crab in a pot, they will. Then they'll move 20 meters away, hunker down, and wait for the next round of crab. These are very bright animals."
While octopuses are plentiful off Lee County, they're not causing problems in other parts of the state, said crab expert Ryan Gandy, a research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
"I haven't heard a lot about it," he said. "There are some out there, but we haven't seen many in our traps. Maybe in your area there's a bigger population than anywhere else."
Commercial fishermen in the Keys are seeing a "fair amount" of octopus, said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, and they haven't been a problem off the Ten Thousand Islands, said Damas Kirk, owner of Kirk Fish House in Goodland.
"We're starting to see a few, but they haven't really moved in," Kirk said. "Traditionally they move in up around your area before they get to us.
"Octopus tend to do better when water temperature drops because the crabs move slower and can't defend themselves. Crabs are terrified of them."
Lee County experienced bad octopus outbreaks during the 1996-1997, 2004-05, 2008-09, 2010-11 stone crab seasons (Florida's stone crab season runs Oct. 15 through May 15).
So, why do octopuses invade some areas and not others, and why do they show up some years and not others?
"I can't say what happens in any given year, but I can tell you the variables," Toll said. "In different years, it's different things."
One of those things has to do with currents.
A female octopus lays up to 500,000 eggs, which are attached to the substrate; when the eggs hatch, the paralarvae (baby octopuses) rise to the surface and live among other plankton for up to two months before settling to the bottom.
If a local octopus population has a good breeding year in the northern Gulf, large numbers of paralarvae might ride the currents south and settle off Lee County. Suddenly, octopuses are packing crab traps.
Another factor can be a local lack of predators eating planktonic or adult octopuses.
"These animals have very, very rapid growth rates," Toll said. "If you have a local burst of fecundity or a reduction of predators, a pile of little octopuses can become a pile of big octopuses pretty quickly."
Stone crabs are an important fishery in Florida: From 2003 through 2012, commercial fishermen harvested an average of 2.68 million pounds of stone crab claws with an average dockside value of $23.09 million.
Lee County's 10-year average was 136,666 pounds of claws.
As with any fishery, stone crab landings fluctuate from year to year: The 2007-2008 season was the best of the past 10 seasons with a statewide harvest of 3.17 million pounds of claws; 2005-2006 was the worst season with 2.06 million pounds.
"This season has been kind of mixed," Gandy said. "Right now, landings are two legal claws per trap. That's the low end for this time of year. Landings peak at the beginning of the year with four to five legal claws per trap, and then you have a steady decline to two at the end of the season. Every trip out is a grind when you're getting two claws or less."
And every trip is a bigger grind when your traps are full of octopuses and shell fragments.
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