Stone crabs are here! And you won’t likely find anything as delicious and fresh as this delicacy from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean waters. Only strawberries are sweeter than stone crabs plucked fresh from our local waters.
The recreational and commercial stone crab claw harvest opened Oct. 15 and season runs through May 15. A disappointing stone crab season last year gives crabbers — and diners — hope for a better catch this year.
“We’re hoping for a good year. It’s our time. Usually fishing is cyclical, so if the last year or one before was bad for us and good south of us, we’ll see a good year,” said Karen Bell, owner of A.P. Bell Fish Co. and neighboring Star Fish Co. Market and Restaurant.
Florida’s open stone crab season applies to state and federal waters. For recreational crabbers, there is a 1-gallon limit per person or 2-gallon limit per vessel, whichever is less. Recreational crabbers also are limited to five traps per person. Regulations for harvesting stone crab claws are set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ensure the species remains sustainable.
To harvest, stone crab claws must be at least 2 3/4 inches when measured from the elbow to the tip of the claw. It is strongly encouraged to only take one claw from each crab to better its chances of survival when released.
Harvesting claws from egg-bearing stone crabs is off limits. They can be identified by an orange or brown egg mass, or “sponge,” on the underside of the crab. It also is illegal to use any device that can injure or crush the crab body. Stone crabs regrow their claws after harvest, so leaving the crab unharmed is vital.
Stone crab claws weren’t harvested until Oct. 15, but recreational and commercial crabbers baited and set their traps in the water 10 days before the start of the season.
Last week, crab traps were sitting on palettes in front of A.P. Bell Fish Co. and near the docks at the Star Fish Co. Bell estimates there were between 4,000-5,000 traps in the water just before season opened.
Crabbers this year had a bit of a late start with Tropical Storm Karen looming in the Gulf Oct. 5. “Most people didn’t want to drop their traps until after Karen, my namesake, had passed. It can affect the traps that were set,” said Bell.
The stone crab claws make their way almost daily into the Star Fish Co. market and onto the restaurant menu. One of the fishing boats usually makes its way to A.P. Bell by noon daily to supply Star with 60-100 pounds of fresh claws.
While A.P. Bell processes seafood, Star has both a retail market and a restaurant selling the fresh product brought to the dock by local fishers. And Karen Bell approves everything that goes on the Star menu, where she likes to keep the recipes simple to showcase the taste of the fresh seafood.
“Stone crab claw meat is so rich by itself. I like it with just lemon juice,” said Bell.
Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant on north Longboat Key must be mentioned with the harvest. For many years the Moore family has operated a fleet of boats, bringing a fresh bounty to their dock.
Another local restaurant offering stone crabs is the Blue Marlin in Bradenton Beach.
There may be more, so readers and restaurateurs are welcome to post information online about locations to enjoy stone crabs.
The opening of Florida’s stone crab season also means the beginning of preparations for the second annual Stone Crab Festival in Cortez Village. The festival will take place Saturday, Oct. 26, and Sunday, Oct. 27. It’s held at the end of 119th Street, a few blocks from the Star Fish Co., and steps away from the Cortez Kitchen restaurant.
The event promises two days of food, music, fun and, of course, stone crabs. Similar to the annual Cortez Fishing Festival held in February, the event includes vendors selling crafts, food and beer.
For festival information, call Bob Slicker, general manager at Swordfish Grill, 941-798-2035.