By Alexis Lucas
Like many other aspects of the seasons, fall in Florida is different from many other states. While our northern friends are enjoying changing leaves and cooler weather, we are enjoying the start of another season: Stone Crab Season. Although this crab can be found anywhere from North Carolina south to Mexico, Florida is the only place you can commercially harvest them.
Florida fishermen have been harvesting stone crabs since the 1890s and its importance can be seen all over the state. Here in Manatee County, it is believed that our first stone crab trapper was Jack Moore, who began harvesting in the late 1920s. Moore lived in Cortez and would sell his harvested stone crab claws at the retail markets in Manatee County.
In the late 1920s Florida law began to establish regulations on gear, the season of harvest, and more. The state found the management of the stone crab fishery to be of high importance since 99% of the landings are in Florida’s coastal waters. However, a Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) was not created and implanted until 1979. There was a need in the community to create a FMP for Stone Crabs on Florida’s Gulf Coast due to gear conflicts between shrimpers and stone crabbers. The FMP was prepared by a Gulf Council Task Team directed by the Southeast Fisheries Center, National Marine Fisheries Service in an effort to make stone crabbing safer for both those harvesting and the crabs.
Both recreational and commercial fisherman may trap and harvest stone crabs during season, which is October 15th until May 15th. Stone crabbers use variety of methods to catch and harvest these crabs including stone crab trips, dip nets, or a landing net. Unlike many other crabs, however, this process should not kill the animal.
Instead of taking the entire crab as other fisheries do, the trappers take only one of the claws (typically the larger one) and release the crab back into the water where the claw is regenerated. Due to this, the crab is able to defend itself and another claw can be harvested the following year.
Additionally, claws must be a legal length of 2.75 inches and the fishermen must use proper tools. Fishermen cannot use hooks, spears, grabs, or trains to capture the crabs. There are also regulations on the placement of traps and what kind of traps may be used.
Stone crabs live in estuaries, near grass beds, where adults dig burrows under the sea grasses or excavate holes under rocks. Although their environment can vary, they prefer muddy bottoms that are near oyster beds. Stone crabs are usually right handed, and are primarily carnivorous, using their powerful claws to crush the shells of oysters, mollusks, scallops, and clams. They will also consume plants as needed.
This year our community celebrated with the 7th annual Cortez Stone Crab and Music Festival hosted by Swordfish Grill & Tiki Bar on Saturday November 10th and Sunday November 11th. A portion of the proceeds from the festival went towards commercial fishermen salaries affected by red tide. The festival also collected toys for those affected by Hurricane Michael in the panhandle.