This morning, as you sit and read the newspaper in the comfort of your home, think about those hardy souls aboard their boats waiting for the sun to rise.
It's a small and select few who go scuba diving on the opening day of the stone crab harvest season. The water is cool, the visibility poor, the conditions far from ideal.
The best spots to find stone crab are usually around bridges where the current is swift, the bottom filled with rocks and broken concrete. This is the inhospitable world of menippe mercenaria.
This crustacean has the distinction of being the only truly sustainable marine fishery in the United States. One of two stone crab species found in Florida waters, they have tasty claws filled with succulent and prized meat.
But stone crabs are survivors. Over time they developed a brilliant and unique way of dealing with predators. If a predator, fish or human, takes hold of a claw, the stone crab can simply "release" it and continue on its way. Over time, the claw will grow back, so that's why it is not unusual to see a crab with one claw larger than the other.
These crustaceans, which are found from North Carolina south, around Florida to the Yucatan and Belize, can live a relatively long time. According to the best age estimates by scientists, a large stone crab might be 7 or 8 years old.
Those old crabs can lay several hundred thousand eggs three or four times a year. But less than a dozen of those eggs will become reproducing adult crabs.
Hunting the flats
While the majority of stone crabbers dive for their claws around local bridges and causeways, it is possible to find them by snorkeling or wading around sea walls or rocky shorelines. But be advised, if you plan to snorkel, even in shallow water, be sure to use a dive flag for safety.
The best place to search for crabs is in a mixed habitat. Stone crabs love to hide in rocky outcroppings near sea grass beds. Just wait for a low tide and walk through the shallow water, keeping an eye out for even the smallest piece of structure.
Stone crabs can lurk in any depression. Turn over rocks and other debris, but be ready, because these critters can scurry off quickly. You will also find them tucked into deep holes, so bring a flat bar to coax them out of their hiding places. A dip net and a bucket or bag to carry the claws is a good idea.
Be careful. The large crushing claw, the one most prized by crabbers for its meat, is the stone crab's principal weapon. A fully developed stone crab is strong enough to crush clams and oysters, so it easily can leave a human finger bruised or broken.
Know the regulations
Before you take the claw, make sure it is legal. Claws must measure at least 2¾ inches from the joint to the tip of the lower finger. The state allows you to take two claws of legal size, but most environmentally conscious crabbers take just one so the crab can still feed and defend itself. A large crab can regrow a legal-sized claw within a year or two.
Once you have found a legal-sized crab, you want to remove the claw without killing the crab. State law requires that the crab be returned to the water alive after a claw is removed.
Here is how you do it:
Grasp a claw with the fingers of each hand, holding the body firmly between the hands. Press the claw down and away from the body. With steady pressure, the crab should "drop" the claw. You'll know if you have done it right if the break is clean. If meat is hanging out, the crab will die.