With just seven days left before stone crab season starts, we thought it might be interesting to explore the life cycle and harvest of delicious creatures. From their habitat to your dinner plate, here are some fascinating facts about the Florida stone crab!
Each molting season the stone crab sheds its exoskeleton and grows a little larger. The only time a female can mate is after she has molted and her shell is soft. Females mate when they reach maturity after two molting seasons. The female will molt and mate from September to November. During that period she collects and stores the male stone crab’s sperm in two sacks for a year until the spring when she uses it to fertilize her eggs inside her body. The fertilized eggs are then pushed out underneath her apron as a spongy mass which she carries around outside her body. There can be up to one million eggs in a sponge and she will produce many sponges throughout the season.
Female stone crabs begin spawning at age two and they usually spawn from April to September here in Florida. Researchers believe stone crabs most likely spawn near oyster reefs and beds of sea grass because this is where their primary food source can be found. The eggs hatch within two weeks and the larvae are released. At four weeks they will have reached the juvenile stage. Harvesting is determined by the crab’s maturity which is indicated by their size. Crab size is measured in terms of carapace, the distance across the crab’s back at its widest point. Males are larger than females measuring up to six inches wide and are estimated to live to between seven and eight years. Females are believed to live up to nine years. Similar to their other crustacean cousins, stone crabs live in burrows close to the shoreline, however adults can be found in depths of up to 200 ft. Larvae feed on zooplankton while juveniles and adults eat oysters, mussels, other crabs, as well as some vegetation.
The tasty decapod’s popularity has resulted in strict regulation. For example, they can only be harvested from sunrise to sunset from October to May. Harvesting at night is prohibited. You may be surprised to learn that pig’s feet is the favored bait to lure the crabs to the traps. Traps can be set in deep or shallow water and there is no limit to the number of traps fisherman can set. Many set up to 4,000 or more. They are often set in groups of five to 20 in various areas on a line (a hauling range or area) of 200 or less. Crab boats vary in size, but most are between 42 and 45 feet and are equipped with hydraulic trap pulling devices. Different containers are used to hold the crabs or claws collected from the traps. Fisherman use one set of containers to hold claws of clear legal size (2 ¾ inches long) and another group is used for crabs that need to be measured at the end of the haul. The legal size claws are clipped and placed into containers with saltwater while the crab itself is returned to the sea. As the buckets get full, claws are transferred to bigger crates.
After removing the crabs or claws, fishermen replace old bait with new bait and continue hauling in traps. They generally operate by alternating from one fisherman on the starboard side, to another fisherman on the port side. This makes hauling the traps more efficient. After almost 12 hours of hauling, the boat returns to the dock and the crab claws are typically cooked immediately on site for about 12 minutes and cooled for 10 minutes. Once cooked and cooled, they are separated by size: Jumbo, large, medium, and floater. A Floater is a crab with very little meat that floats to the surface during the cooking process and are the least expensive to purchase. Depending on the boat and the buyer, some fisherman harvest, cook and sort then deliver the claws in ice packed containers to the buyer, but in other situations the buyer arrives at the dock, the catch is weighed, and they are responsible for cooking, sorting and transporting it themselves.
If you want to see how we get our crabs, check out this video!
Don’t forget to mark your calendar for October 15th!