In the cooler months in Florida, stone crabs seek the warmth of the brackish inter-coastal waters. For me, I’ll always think of these months as the ones my friends drop their Maryland-style crab traps (also called “crab pots”) to the floor of the Indian River Lagoon and check them every few evenings for any crustaceans.
Stone crabs range from the North Atlantic all the way down to Mexico and, although their bodies don’t have much meat, their claws are considered a delicacy served up with butter. A Floridian from birth, I particularly enjoy eating all shellfish from crawdads to crabs.
This past Thursday night, I was lucky enough to be invited along to check my friend Eric’s crab trap. Being an early March evening in Florida, the temperatures that were fairly warm in the day plummeted down to a fairly cold (especially for Florida) 53 degrees.
Even with the 15 miles per hour pace of Eric’s grandpa’s 20-plus-year-old pontoon boat, the whipping wind got through all of my coats and blankets. And yes, I did say coats. Not only did I wear a hoodie but a windbreaker over it. My greatest regret was wearing low-cut socks.
Despite the adversity, we managed to seek out the buoy that marked the location of the trap.
By pulling the rope attached to the buoy, the crab trap can be easily hauled onboard. Eric’s trap was set up recently in January but it was already covered in its own ecosystem: algae, barnacles, small oysters to name a few.
These traps look like a cube with one side that can be opened for trappers to peer inside. The opening through which the unsuspecting crabs enter to inspect and eat the bait put inside but are trapped. When the crabs go inside, they float to the bottom and cannot make their way back through the entrance they came.
Our trap had four prisoners large enough to confiscate claws from. A legal-sized stone crab has claws that are at least 2.75 inches and are captured between October 15 and May 15 in the United States according to the Florida Wildlife Commission website. Only five crabs per trap per time checked can have their claws removed by recreational crab trappers.
In order to sustain the stone crab population in the past, only one claw was allowed to be taken per crab but now it is legal to take both to be boiled. The FWC still prefers that one claw be left for the crab to be able to defend itself and obtain food. Stone crabs eat oysters, using their claws to crack open their tough shells.
Our crew uses a flathead screwdriver to break the crab claws off at the joint. This process does not hurt the crabs and they regenerate these limbs after a few months.
When I was giving the screwdriver method a try, I was nervous because I typically don’t amputate limbs from any living thing but in the name of good seafood I mustered the courage. Also, I definitely didn’t want to be anywhere near the claws that could snap my fingers in the same manner they crack their prey.
Stay tuned for my next post… I will be giving tips on cooking and eating stone crab claws!