Last Wednesday, Oct. 15, kicked off stone crab season in Florida. While many are familiar with king crab and snow crab, stone crabs are unique to Florida.
Floridians know the sweet and succulent meat of the stone crab and are always eager for the season to start. But stone crabs, like everything else, are subject to the laws of supply and demand. When supplies are low - as they have been for the last two years - and demand is high, prices escalate.
Crabbers are permitted to lay their traps 10 days before the official harvest start date of the season. During that period, hopes are that there will be an abundance of crabs.
Shortly after midnight on Oct. 15, the boats left their docks to begin the first harvest of the season. But when they checked in 8 to 12 hours later to Island Crab Company on Pine Island, they returned with a less than stellar catch.
"So far we are off to a slow start," said Jeff Haugland, owner of Island Crab Company. "In a good year, traps will have maybe a pound of crab per trap. In a slow year, crabbers can make a living at maybe 1/3 to 1/2 pound per trap. But so far this year we're only looking at 1/4 pound per trap."
Harvested during a seven-month period from Oct. 15 to May 15, stone crab is a Florida delicacy. Only the claws are eaten and up until a few years ago, only one claw could be harvested. Today crabbers can take both claws if they meet minimum size requirements (claws must be 2 3/4 quarter inches long to harvest). According to Haugland, it's rare that both claws are large enough to harvest. Usually only one claw meets minimum standards. Crabs can regenerate a new claw in about 18 months.
Crabs have predators like octopus and grouper that eat them. When the waters are clear, like they are now, those predators take their toll. What's needed is stormy weather that churns up the bottom and offers protection for the crabs. When they become more active there is a bigger haul in the traps.
Stone crabs are usually harvested by setting traps baited with chicken necks. These traps look similar to milk crates with a hole in the top of about five inches and a bottom weighted with concrete to keep it on the sea bottom. Commercial crabbers may set 100 traps per line and some set more than 10,000 traps. Each trap has a buoy so other crabbers know where the traps are.
When crabbers bring in their catch, the claws are then boiled for 7-8 minutes and then put on ice. The icing process removes a slight iodine taste in the meat.
"We've had two bad years in a row and I am hoping that this year is an improvement," Haugland said. "I'm not sure some of these guys can get through another bad year.
"But it's simply too early to tell," Haugland conrinued. "They've only been out for a few days, the season is seven months long, and we'll need to wait and see what the take is in the coming weeks and months."