Fishers bring stone crabs to market
A $9.5 million market opens this week.
Stone crab season begins Wednesday, Oct. 15, and continues until May 15.
For Cortez, that means crabbers are hard at work hauling, baiting and collecting traps, and retailers are at work marketing the stone crab claws.
Many other fishing communities around the state also rely heavily on the season. Last year, the state reported that sales of stone crab claws generated about $9.5 million, with far more claws collected from Florida’s west coast than the east coast.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported issuing 30 stone crab licenses in Manatee County for 2008 as of August. The number is down from 54 licenses in 2003 and 97 licenses in 1998.
Catches reported from Manatee County also have declined over the years — 24,466 pounds last season compared to 65,200 pounds in 2003.
Statewide last season’s stone crab catch was 1.4 million, with fishers reporting 9,870 trips and crab sales averaging $6.69 a pound.
Until the first reports from trap checks come in, fishers and retailers will not know what kind of season to expect, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that stone crab population levels are estimated to be high and no overfishing has occurred recently.
Government agencies maintain that restrictions on crabbing have led to a sustainability of the species, specifically rules allowing crabbers to take only a legal-sized claw from a crab and then returning it to the water.
For diners, stone crab claws are a low-fat source of protein, selenium and magnesium.
But the nutritional value is not really what attracts foodies. Seafood enthusiasts describe the claws as a delicacy — succulent, sweet, delectable — whether dipped in butter or served with a signature sauce.
The claws are cooked immediately after harvest. They are served fresh here, but the claws also are frozen and shipped worldwide.
“We have people from all over come in for stone crabs,” said Alice Sistek of Cortez Bait & Seafood Inc., 119th St. W., Cortez. “People enjoy those stone crabs — and we get some colossals that are amazing, just amazing.”
The fresh seafood shop relies heavily on the stone crab harvest. “It pulls us through,” Sistek said.
Just as crabbers do not know what to expect of the harvest this new season, retailers and restaurants do not know what to expect for prices.
The increased cost of fuel was expected to be a factor.
Did you know?
Crabbers take only the claws of stone crabs and return the live crab back to the water. Stone crabs regenerate their claws the next time they molt.
Stone crabs are usually “right-handed,” meaning that the larger crusher claw is usually on the right. The ability of adult stone crabs to feed upon mollusks can be attributed to the enormous crushing force of their claws — up to 19,000 pounds per square inch. Their pincer claws are used to cut or tear shell and tissue.
Stone crabs appear to be well suited for their habitat. The dark, unmottled pattern of the Gulf stone crab helps it blend in with the mud substrates common to the northern Gulf estuaries, and the lighter, spotted color pattern of the Florida stone crab makes it difficult to see in grassy areas.