Harvest Season for Florida's Stone Crab Returns

Seafood lovers prepare your palate because the Florida stone crab season starts up again tomorrow, which means that seafood restaurants will be featuring stone crab on their menus for the next 7 months.

After crawling on the earth for over 3 million years, these crabs are sought after and harvested for their delicious claws. These fascinating and long-surviving creatures are able to regrow their claws. As a survival mechanism, the process is known as molting and the stone crab can lose its limbs easily to escape from predators. This also makes them ideal for catching because once one or both claws are removed, they can be returned to ocean to regrow their limbs. Approximately 15% of commercial stone crab landings come from regenerated claws.

Harvesting

Two species of stone crabs exist both in the Southeastern United States. Scientists believe that they were once one species but evolved into two. The Florida stone crab is found in the Western North Atlantic, while the subspecies, the Gulf stone crab is primarily found in the gulf of Mexico.

Both species are heavily harvested in both commercial and recreational fishing. Stone crabs are legal to catch for seven months from October 15 to May 15. During the season, the commercial stone crab fishery is monitored by the Crustacean Fisheries group at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

How They are Caught

The most traditional method used for harvesting is a baited trap. For commercial stone crab fishery– up to 100 traps are lined up, while recreational crab fishers are limited to five traps per person and a saltwater fishing license is required. There are various regulations to trapping including the type of gear permitted, size of trap, and buoy requirements.

Once trapped the crabs are inspected for legal-sized claws. Legal- sized claws are measured by the propodus, the large immovable part of the claw. Male claws tend to be larger than females. If one or two of the propodus' of the claw measures at least  2 ¾ inches, it can be removed. If the claws are properly broken off and the joint linking the body to the claw is left intact, the crab has a better chance of survival when thrown back into the ocean.

The crabs are also inspected for females carrying eggs. Ovigerous females are to be returned to the ocean unharmed and immediately. Harvesting the claws of pregnant females is illegal.

How They are Sold

Claws are sold by four different sizes medium, large, jumbo, and colossal. Last year, the wholesale prices went up by roughly 26 %, averaging $12 a pound across all claw sizes. This is partly because last year the harvest was slow. The increase of wholesale prices was also reflected on restaurant menus and the larger sized claws last year were sparse. Restaurants purchased less claws due to the extra expense and smaller size.

Delicacy

The stone crab claws are considered a delicacy and seafood diners will pay a pretty penny for them. The claws must be cooked before placing on ice or they will stick to the shell.

Besides being especially tasty, there is a restaurant that has significantly contributed to the consumer’s stone crab obsession. Joe’s Stone Crab open in 1913 and is a wildly popular seafood restaurant attracting diners across the world, including celebrities. Arguably Florida’s most popular restaurant, it is not uncommon that diners will wait a few hours for a table. The average tab for a Joe's Stone Crab meal is $80 per person. The restaurant is opened for the 7 month stone crab season and as the top buyer of Florida stone crabs, this restaurant directly influences the wholesale pricing of the stone crabs.

The Stone Cold Problem and Stone Crab Sustainability

Last year was one of the most devastating years of the harvest. A good harvest season amounts 3 million pounds. However, the 2013 season decreased by a third and totaled at about 2 million pounds. Primarily, the decrease has to do with the change in the environment. Red tides and a fatal parasite plagued the stone crabs significantly last year.

In order to keep the harvest healthy– the state reduces the amount of commercial traps permitted. Not only does this decrease over-fishing, but it reduces the number of “ghost” traps. These ghost traps are often lost during the season and so are the crabs inside them.

Another way to help sustain the stone crab population is with regulations that are strictly enforced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. It is the commission's responsibility to protect the local species and habitat from distinction. This is also why stone crab harvesters are encouraged to only break off one of the crabs claws and properly, to better ensure their survival.