History Matters: Importance of stone crabs can be seen all over Florida

Like many other aspects of the seasons, fall in Florida is different from many other states.

While our northern friends are enjoying changing leaves and cooler weather, we are enjoying the start of another season: stone crab season.

Although this crab can be found from North Carolina to Mexico, Florida is the only place you can commercially harvest them.

Florida fishermen have been harvesting stone crabs since the 1890s and its importance can be seen all over the state.

In Manatee County, it is believed that our first stone crab trapper was Jack Moore, who began harvesting in the late 1920s. Moore lived in Cortez and sold his harvested stone crab claws at the retail markets in Manatee County.

In the late 1920s, Florida law began to establish regulations on gear, the season of harvest and more. The state found the management of the stone crab fishery to be of high importance since 99 percent of the landings are in Florida’s coastal waters.

However, a Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) was not created and implanted until 1979. There was a need in the community to create a FMP for stone crabs on Florida’s Gulf Coast due to gear conflicts between shrimpers and stone crabbers.

The FMP was prepared by a Gulf Council Task Team directed by the Southeast Fisheries Center, National Marine Fisheries Service in an effort to make stone crabbing safer for both those harvesting and the crabs.

Feeling Crabby Picture.JPG
Recreational and commercial fishermen can trap and harvest stone crabs during season, which is Oct. 15 until May 15. Provided photo

Both recreational and commercial fishermen may trap and harvest stone crabs during season, which is Oct. 15 until May 15.

Stone crabbers use variety of methods to catch and harvest these crabs including stone crab trips, dip nets or a landing net. Unlike many other crabs, however, this process should not kill the animal.

Instead of taking the entire crab as other fisheries do, the trappers take only one of the claws (typically the larger one) and release the crab back into the water where the claw is regenerated. Due to this, the crab is able to defend itself and another claw can be harvested the following year.

Additionally, claws must be a legal length of 2.75 inches and the fishermen must use proper tools. Fishermen cannot use hooks, spears, grabs or trains to capture the crabs. There are also regulations on the placement of traps and what kind of traps may be used.

Stone crabs live in estuaries, near grass beds, where adults dig burrows under the sea grasses or excavate holes under rocks. Although their environment can vary, they prefer muddy bottoms that are near oyster beds.

Stone crabs are usually right handed, and are primarily carnivorous, using their powerful claws to crush the shells of oysters, mollusks, scallops and clams. They will also consume plants as needed.

This year our community celebrates with the seventh annual Cortez Stone Crab and Music Festival hosted by Swordfish Grill & Tiki Bar on Saturday and Sunday.

A portion of the proceeds from the festival go toward commercial fishermen salaries affected by red tide. The festival also collected toys for those affected by Hurricane Michael in the panhandle.

To learn more about Florida and its fishing heritage, including stone crab trapping, consider coming by the Florida Maritime Museum on Dec. 8 for the inaugural Maritime by Candlelight event.

Visitors will experience “Old Florida” through a candlelit tour of the museum, storytelling, live music, shell ornament activity and an 11th anniversary “maritime themed” light ceremony.

Festivities will take place on museum grounds from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

For more information, visit FloridaMaritimeMuseum.org or call us at (941) 708-6120.

Visit us Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

Alexis Schofield is the education coordinator at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez. Our History Matters is an occasional series published in the Bradenton Herald.