MARATHON, Fla. (AP) _ A surplus of stone crabs could drive down prices because some restaurants that serve the claws haven't reopened since they were damaged by the four hurricanes that hit Florida, commercial fishermen said.

Friday marks the opening of the annual stone crab harvest.

Gary Graves, who manages Keys Fisheries, the largest distributor of stone crab claws in the Florida Keys, says that 60 to 70 percent of Florida's yield is served in restaurants.

``The hurricanes did serious damage to many restaurants in affected areas and most are still in a rebuilding phase,'' Graves said. ``Just losing five to 10 percent of restaurants that traditionally serve claws will result in less demand.''

Graves says he expects retail seafood market prices $3 to $4 less per pound at the opening of the season compared to last year's cost. The claws come in different sizes and are served cold. Prices vary depending on the claws' size and quality.

The waters off the Florida Keys are the state's leading supplier of claws and account for about 40 percent of an average 3.1-million-pound harvest, said Joe O'Hop, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The average retail value of the take is $50 million.

``We're lucky that commercial fishing facilities in the Keys and emerged unscathed from outer fringes of the hurricanes,'' he said.

The stone crab is the state's only renewable commercial fishing resource. Legal-size claws are snapped off and the crab's body is returned to the water to grow new extremities.

Crabs can regenerate claws up to three times within their lifetime, which is normally seven to eight years, said Theresa Bert, a wildlife commission research scientist.


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