They’re feisty, fearsome predators, even cannibalistic; and they’re what’s for dinner. At least at my house! Let’s talk stone crab!
Two commercial species of stone crab coexist in the state of Florida, the Florida stone crab (Menippe mercenaria) and the Gulf stone crab (Menippe adina). These two crabs are managed as a single fishery in the state. The Florida stone crab (our crab) occurs in the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico and extends from North Carolina throughout peninsular Florida and the Caribbean. The Gulf stone crab occurs principally in the northern and western Gulf of Mexico.
The Florida stone crab inhabits mixed seagrass-hard bottom habitat. Adult crabs dig burrows under the seagrasses or excavate holes in emerged rocks on the seafloor. The Gulf stone crab also occupies those habitats, but prefers muddier bottoms and oyster reefs. Both species feed primarily on mollusks, including scallops, clams, conchs, and oysters, which they crush with their powerful claws. Predators that feed on stone crabs include octopus and humans.
Southwest Florida has a long tradition of commercial fishing in its rivers, bays, and Gulf waters. In 2015 over 22 million pounds of wild harvested fish and shellfish including shrimp, blue and stone crab, grouper, mackerel, and mullet among others were harvested by commercial fishermen and landed in the seven-coastal counties of Southwest Florida. In addition, approximately 285 wholesalers and 750 retailers bought and sold seafood in this region contributing to Florida’s multi-billion dollar seafood industry.
The fisheries in Southwest Florida are monitored and managed at the state level by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and federally by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. Closed areas and seasons, size and daily limits, trip tickets, and limited access into a fishery are all tools commonly used to manage Florida’s fisheries. In addition, managers establish annual catch limits and accountability measures to ensure the long-term health of the fisheries they manage. Fishermen use a variety of gear and methods to harvest their catch and they must also follow rules to minimize impacts to the surrounding environment and marine life.
Do you love to eat stone crab claws? Would you like to learn more about the stone crab industry? Join the Florida Sea Grant Agent in Collier County for another “Are you Smarter than a Stone Crab?” Tour on April 9th, 2015. We will visit Kirk Fish Company in Goodland, Fl. Note the tour will start at the Marco Island Library. To register visit: http://april9th2015stonecrabtour.eventbrite.com/
The next “Are You Smarter than a Stone Crab” tour will be Tuesday, April 29th. I’m excited to be working with Kirk Fish Company in Goodland, FL for the tour. The Kirks are a multi-generation Florida fish family with lots of knowledge and experience.
The program is a great opportunity to learn about stone crab biology, the management of the fishery as well as its economic and cultural importance to the region. Of course you get to eat stone crab too!
Space is limited so register today. http://2013stonecrabtour.eventbrite.com/
Anglers in southwest Florida are fortunate they have several options to chose from when fishing with live bait; particularly crabs. Besides using blue and fiddler crabs to catch popular species such as red drum, sheepshead, and pompano, many anglers also use what is known as mud crabs. As their name implies mud crabs are often found in muddy environments particularly around oyster beds, shell rubble, rocks, pilings, mangrove prop roots, and other structures. While there are several species of mud crabs, they typically have brownish to black-colored carapaces (or shells) and the fingers (or tips) of their thick, unequal-sized claws are also dark in color. The interior portion of their claws, however, tend to be pale in color.
Mud crabs belong to the family Xanthidae, which also includes the more familiar Florida stone crab (Menippe mercenaria). Like many mud crabs, the fingers of a stone crab’s claws are also dark in color. Depending on their size, a stone crab’s carapace can vary from black/dark purple to tan in color, which can look similar to the body of a mud crab.
- Over 2.7 million stone crab claws were harvested in Florida during the 2012/2013 season worth an estimated dockside value of $25.1 million.
- Florida’s stone crab fishery provides approximately 98% of all stone crab landings in the United States. The top landings in the state come from Monroe and Collier Counties.
- Because the majority of stone crab landings come from state waters of Florida, the fishery is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
- Two true species of stone crabs are harvested in Florida waters; The Florida and Gulf stone crab. Gulf stone crab are found from northwest Florida around the Gulf of Mexico through Mexico. Florida stone crab are found from west central Florida around the peninsula to east central Florida and North Carolina. The two species can interbreed and a hybrid of the two species can be found through the Big Bend region as well as from east central Florida through South Carolina. The majority of crabs harvested are Florida stone crabs.
- Researchers estimate stone crabs can live up to seven to nine years with females typically living longer than males. It is unlikely crabs live to their maximum age in fished populations.
- Florida stone crabs begin spawning when they are about 2 years of age.
- Juvenile stone crabs inhabit crevices in and beneath rock, shell, sponges, and tunicates. Adult Florida stone crabs live in burrows and can be found in seagrass beds or on rocky substrates near and offshore out to depths of 200 feet.
- Stone crab may relocate in response to environmental factors or seasons. Large males often travel inshore in the fall to mate with molting females.
- Stone crabs are generally opportunistic and will feed on snails, clams, urchins, and other invertebrates. They will also feed on fish and ocassionally plant material.
- Fishermen primarily uses baited traps to harvest stone crabs. Pigs feet and mullet are commonly used as bait.
- A valid tag must be securely attached to each trap. Trap specifications and trap, buoy, and vessel marking requirements apply. Traps, buoys, and vessels must display the letter “X” and long with their permit number. Traps must be constructed of wood, plastic, or wire.
- To reduce bycatch, each plastic trap must have a degradable panel and each wire trap must have at least three unobstructed escape rings (2-3/8 inches inside diameter) on a vertical side of the trap.
- It is a third degree felony for tampering with someone else’s traps (or their content), lines, or buoys. In addition to criminal penalties. Violators can be fined $5,000 and lose their saltwater fishing privileges.
- Florida’s stone crab season runs from October 15-May 15. Fishermen may put out their traps ten days bofore the season begins, and they have five days after the season ends to bring in their traps. Spawning can occur year round, but stone crabs typically spawn from April through September. This is the primary reason Florida’s stone crab fishery is closed during the summer months; to protect spanwing females.
- The stone crab fishery is unique in that only the claws are harvested, and the crab must be returned to the water alive.
- Both claws of a stone crab can be legally harvested if they are at least 2 and 3/4 inches in length from the bottom tip of the claw to the bend of the claw (propodus). Fishermen however, are encouraged to harvest only one claw as taking both leaves the stone crab with few alternatives to defend itself from predators and may slow the regeneration process.
- Surviving the declawing process depends on several factors such as the technique used to break off the claw (never twist off a claw as this can pull out muscle tissue and cause the crab to bleed out-it should be a quick downward snap), whether one or two claws are removed, and size/sex of the crab (their is concern from manager about the survival rates of the large males)
- It takes a stone crab approximately one year to regenerate a claw due to the seasonal molting of stone crabs. It may take up to three years for a claw reach legal size.
- It is illegal to harvest claws from egg-bearing females, easily identifiable by the orange or brown sponge the female carries under her. If a sponge is detected, the crab must be immediately placed back in the water unharmed no matter how big the claws are.
- Research from FWC indicates approximately 13% of the stone crab claws harvested are regenerated, indicating that stone crabs survive the declawing process.
- While Florida’s stone crab fishery is resilient and well managed, there is concern that there are too many traps in the fishery. To address this issue without putting current fishermen out of business, managers and fishermen collaborated to create a trap limitation program. Approved in 2000, the program introduced new licensing and trap limits that will gradually decrease fishing effort over several decades.
- Recreational fishermen are allowed five traps to harvest stone crabs.. Free stranding traps must have the owners name and address placed on them. Buoys should be marked with the letter “R” to denote it as a recreational trap. Size limits, seasons, and trap specifications are the same for recreational fishermen as the commercial fishermen.
- Stone crab claws should never be put on ice before being cooked in order to prevent the meat from sticking to the inside of the shell. Once cooked, then they can be placed on ice.
- Stone crab meat resembles lobster in appearance and tastes like a cross between crab and lobster—sweet, mild, and firm.
- On average about two and half pounds of claws will yield about a pound of meat.
- Stone crabs are a good, low-fat source of protein, vitamin 6, selenium, and magnesium.
Stone crabs are one of Florida’s most valuable fisheries, and like other species we depend on for seafood, they often utilize a variety of habitats and undergo a series of physical transformations throughout their life.
Mating in stone crabs takes place near and offshore during the fall and can only occur when the female has molted and her shell is soft. While eggs are fertilized internally, they are eventually deposited beneath the female’s abdomen or “apron” in an external mass called a sponge. Spawning typically occurs during summer months and females can release millions of fertilized eggs in several intervals.
Stone crab season is around the corner. Join the Collier County Sea Grant Extension Agent to learn about one of Florida’s most valuable fisheries!