Today hundreds of fishing boats heaped with traps race shoreward from the Gulf of Mexico with the opening day bounty of stone crabs.
The state's most cherished shellfish returns to restaurant menus and fish markets, where it will be sold until the season ends on May 15. There are only two things to remember about eating stone crabs: When they're hot, dip them in melted butter, and when they're not, drag them through a cold mustard sauce.
Jono Nye, operations manager at Billy's Stone Crab Restaurant in Tierra Verde (1 Collany Road; (727) 866-2115), is gearing up for the first catch. Sourcing crabs from Homosassa down to Everglades City, Nye says Billy's historically sells 700 to 1,000 pounds of crab per week for the first two weeks of the season, then about 500 pounds per week after that. Billy's will open the season with a 1-pound medium select claw dinner for $15.99. That will get you about six or seven claws.
Still, says Nye, a lot is unknown.
"We can't really predict what the harvest will be like until opening day, but the guys we're talking to are saying they're not seeing any problems or damage from hurricanes Fay or Ike. Really, sometimes storms are good because they push the crabs closer to the beach. It's hard to say with stone crabs because they move around quite a bit. The harvest was tough in 2005 and in 2006 prices were extremely high, and then last year was pretty good."
The claws come in medium, large, jumbo and colossal, and prices jump accordingly. Expect to pay more than $20 for large and bigger claws.
According to Lee Schlesinger, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the 2007 season brought in nearly 3-million pounds of stone crab claws. The industry grossed $26.5-million statewide. By comparison, Florida's oyster industry brought in 3-million pounds valued at $7-million; blue crabs in the state yielded 10-million pounds with a value of $10-million.
Thus, stone crabbing is big business in Florida, with 1-million pounds of last year's bounty caught in Monroe County alone. Pinellas County brought in nearly 300,000 pounds of claws last year. But the per-trap harvest continues to dwindle each year. Because the industry has been overcapitalized in recent years — just too many traps — the wildlife commission has instituted controls to cap the numbers.
"Commercial fishermen must have specific licenses and endorsements, and the number of allowed traps is set by how many they had the previous year," Schlesinger explains. "When fishermen leave the industry, then we reduce the number of available traps, so by attrition, we're slowly reducing the numbers."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.