Mullet or pigs feet?
Before stone crab claws hit local markets and restaurants, the popular crustacean will have its pick of delicacies, according to John Banyas, who was preparing Oct. 4 for the seven-month harvest season.
Florida crabbers can bait and place their traps in the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay for the Oct. 15-May 15 season 10 days before the harvest begins. The bait may be anything from cut-up mullet to pigs feet to canned cat food.
First, the traps must be readied.
Karen Bell, owner of A.P. Bell, said she expects about 4,000 traps will be placed Oct. 8-9 by crabbers who work from her docks at 124th Street West in Cortez, but they may be delayed due to weather.
Wind and rain were in the forecast for the weekend as Tropical Storm Nate made its way through the Gulf of Mexico, north and west of central Florida’s Gulf Coast. Wind and wave action can shift and bury traps, making them difficult for crabbers to locate or retrieve.
Bell also operates Starfish Company Market & Restaurant adjacent to the Bell docks, where plenty of stone crabs are processed and sold.
At the 119th Street docks, all hands were on deck Oct. 4 under Banyas’ covered trap yard.
There, Banyas, owner of the Swordfish Grill, Cortez Bait & Seafood and N.E. Taylor Boatworks, and his crew worked to ready the traps —scraping old barnacles from the traps to make it easier for crabs to slip inside and adding new lines and buoys.
Banyas said he’d be watching the forecast closely in the upcoming days to determine when it’s safe to place the traps in the water.
“I’m a risk-taker. I might shoot a few out there,” he said with a chuckle.
Banyas said his five boats would ultimately place 2,500 crab traps.
Last year, he recalled the season started OK, improving midseason before it “fizzled out at the end.”
As far as this year’s bounty, neither Banyas nor Bell would hazard a guess.
Local owners and crabbers, however, have reasons to believe Hurricane Irma, which stirred the Gulf in September, likely helped their cause.
Storms stir up marine life and increase the number of stone crab landings, according to Ryan Gandy of the Fish and Wildlife Institute, a research arm of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The FWC monitors the stone crab population, the market and sustainability of the fisheries.
“It is true,” Gandy said, adding data show bumper crops of stone crab in the years of Florida hurricanes. “I hear this from the boat captains, too.”
State and federal laws allow claws to be harvested if they measure 2 3/4 inches-long or more from the elbow to the immovable portion of the claw.
After placing the traps, the crabbers return often to check, rebait and sometimes relocate them.
And beginning Oct. 15, they’ll harvest the crabs, removing the legal-size claws and returning the crab to the water to regrow its claws. The crabbers then re-bait and re-set the traps.
The FWC recommends only harvesting one claw, even if both are long enough, so the crab is not left defenseless for predators, including octopus.
Claws may not be taken from egg-bearing stone crabs, identifiable by orange or brown eggs amassed on the belly of the female crab.
Banyas and Bell and all commercial crabbers are FWC licensed for a specific number of traps.
Recreational harvesters are allowed five stone crab traps and a daily harvest of 1 gallon of claws per person or 2 gallons per vessel.