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Blue crab state of mind

If you have ever seen a blue crab move through the water, then you know why this genus was dubbed Callinectes, or "beautiful swimmer." For those who have only encountered this crab steamed or boiled and served on a plate, then you undoubtedly understand why scientists later added the species name sapidus, which means "savory," to taxonomic description. But the best thing about these crustaceans is their ability to rebound after subtle changes in the environment. "Some of the local crabbers have noticed over the past five years a reduction in the number of crabs because of the drought conditions and reduced water flow into Tampa Bay," said Dr. Ryan Gandy, who studies blue crabs for the St. Petersburg-based Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. "But because of the wet winter, we have already seen a dramatic rebound in the number of blue crabs."

Blue crabs do best when there is plenty of freshwater mixing with the saltwater that flows in with the tide. When the freshwater flow is reduced and the salinity becomes too high, the crabs don't reproduce in great numbers, Gandy said.

"When the water gets too salty, the crabs get stressed," he said. "It is a real delicate balance."

Summertime fun

Crabbing is good year-round in Florida, but things really pick up during the summer.

You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. All it takes to catch crabs is a piece of string and a smelly fish head.

Crabs, like humans, are opportunistic omnivores. That means they will eat just about anything that doesn't eat them first. The typical blue crab's diet includes mollusks, worms, fish and other crabs.

That is why you find crabs around sea grass beds, which offer protection from predators as well as plenty of things to eat.

But you'll also find these crabs prowling seemingly lifeless canals and swimming sideways across desolate mud flats. In fact, female blue crabs have been documented as traveling 500 miles in 100 days.

Blue crabs can be found all along the Atlantic Coast and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. They spawn year-round in Florida, but in the Tampa Bay area, peak time is March through May.

"The best crabbing is usually on the south side of the bay," Gandy said. "And right now is as good a time as any to go."

Chicken neckers

Any dead, oily fish will attract crabs. Shad and mullet are the baits of choice for commercial crabbers. Some folks use cat food. But chicken backs and necks seem to be most popular. In fact, crabbers were once called "chicken neckers."

A good place to try to catch crabs is off any sea wall or dock. You can use a fold-up trap, but to be successful, you need to play close attention. The weighted, "open" trap lays flat with the bait in the middle. When the crab grabs the bait, the crabber pulls on the lines and shuts the trap.

Wading for crabs is another popular method. All you need is a mesh net with a 4-foot handle. The larger the mesh, the faster it will move through the water.

Wait for low tide, and wade in 2 or 3 feet of water. Look for an area with good stands of sea grass. Scoop up the crabs as they try to run for cover. This method works particularly well at night with a spotlight or lantern.

Another easy method calls for a store-bought throw line. These weighted rigs are inexpensive and easy to use. Simply hook the bait to the weight and toss it out. Then retrieve the bait slowly. As the crab eats, drag the bait back to the waiting net.

This method also works using string and a chicken neck or fish head. Tie the bait to the string and toss it out. Be sure to use weight to keep the bait from floating.

Now it's time to cook them. Be sure to steam or boil the crabs for at least 15 minutes to kill any parasites or pathogens.

FAST FACTS

Closed seasons

A rule took effect July 1, 2009, that established closed periods of up to 10 days in six regions of the state to identify and retrieve lost and abandoned blue crab traps. This rule only applies to the recreational and commercial harvest of blue crabs with traps in the following areas:

All waters of the St. Johns River system from Jan. 16-25; and all waters of Franklin County to the Florida/Alabama state line, excluding all waters of the Ochlockonee River and Bay, from Jan. 5-14.

However, the FWC recently issued an executive order, effective July 1, waiving the closures in these four areas to help relieve possible economic hardships on fishing communities as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: all waters from the Georgia/Florida state line, excluding the St. Johns River system, south through Volusia County from Aug. 20-29; all waters of Brevard through Palm Beach counties, excluding the St. Johns River system, from Aug. 10-19; all waters of Broward through Pasco counties from July 10-19; all waters of Hernando through Wakulla counties including all waters of the Ochlockonee River and Bay, from July 20-29.

Crabbing using other gear, such as dip nets and fold-up traps, is still permitted during closures. Traps that are attached to private property such as docks are not included in the closure. There is also an existing blue crab trap harvest closure 3 to 9 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico from Sept. 20 through Oct. 4 each year.



Blue crabs

Scientific name: Callinectes sapidus

Size: Adults usually measure 5 to 7 inches across, from the tip of one lateral spine to the other.

Range: Found from Nova Scotia to northern Argentina, but this species has also been introduced to coastal France, Denmark, San Francisco Bay, and the Mediterranean Sea.

Habitat: Soft-bottomed estuaries, bays, deltas; females migrate offshore to spawn.

Regulations: Five traps maximum without a commercial blue crab endorsement; traps may be worked only during daylight hours. The taking of females with eggs is prohibited. Recreational crabbers may take up to 10 gallons of crabs per day.

Rain and drought

Blue crab populations fluctuate with rainfall. Florida's commercial landings reached more than 18 million pounds in 1987 and 1996 but dropped to less than 8 million pounds in 2001 and 2002. On the Gulf Coast, landings dropped from about 11 million pounds in 1999 to about 4.5 million pounds in 2001 but went up to 8.5 million pounds in 2006.

Fast facts

• One tagging study documented female blue crabs that moved 500 miles in 100 days.

• Annual hard-shell blue crab landings in Florida total approximately 6 million pounds, with average revenue of $7 million.

Source: Dr. Ryan Gandy, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Recipes

Steamed crab: Coat the crabs generously with Old Bay Seasoning, steam for 15 minutes, then eat heartily, preferably with a cold beverage.

Garlic crab: Steam for five minutes, clean the crabs, and leave the meat in the shell. Then smother them in a mixture of one-half olive oil, one-half butter and lots of garlic. Put the whole mess on a baking pan and bake for 10 minutes. Complement with cold beverage.

Compiled by Terry Tomalin,

Times Outdoors Editor

Blue crab state of mind 07/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 10:34pm]

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