The Florida stone crab season opens Friday, which means fresh claws may start showing up on dinner menus and in specialty stores as early as Saturday.
The stone crab resembles a bodybuilder, with pumped-up, beefy claws folded out in front of its body. The Florida delicacy can cost two times the price of Alaskan snow crab legs. The 2 million pounds of sweet crab meat harvested last year fueled a $31 million industry.
This will be the second year of state regulations that shortened the season by two weeks — it ends May 1 — and upped the minimum size for claws. Last season, while not the best, was better than two years ago when Red Tide made crabbing off some of the coastal waters impossible, state regulators said.
Market prices are influenced by a number of factors, making it hard to predict before the season starts. When the pandemic shut down many of the restaurants and stone crab festivals last year, many worried the season would be a dud.
“If last year is any indication of value, it remained high despite the effects of the pandemic,” said Claire Crowley, a research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute based in St. Petersburg. It will take several years to feel the effect of the shorter season and claw size change, she said, but it aims to combat overfishing.
When harvesting stone crabs, fishers take the claws off, then return the crab to the water. They cook them immediately, chill them and then deliver them to restaurants and markets, where freshly caught crab is prized for its sweetness over the frozen variety.
Recreational harvesters who are age 16 and older and fish with traps are required to complete an online, no-cost recreational stone crab trap registration each year. To register, visit GoOutdoorsFlorida.com. There is a daily bag limit of 1 gallon of claws per person or 2 gallons per vessel, whichever is less.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warns that care should be taken when removing the claws to avoid permanent injury to the crab, one of few animals that can regenerate. Claws can take two years to grow large enough to harvest again.
A state study found crabs that lost both claws were twice as likely to die as those that only had one removed. Crabs can also only regrow a claw if the joint that linked it is left intact.
Stone crab harvest
The Florida stone crab harvest has declined steadily since 2015, which prompted new limits on the season and claw size. Last season wasn't its best, but was better than 2018 when Red Tide made crabbing impossible in many coastal areas.
* The previous seasons were Oct.15-May 15. The 20-21 season ran from Oct. 15 to May 1.
There are four industry-standard sizes, based on weight. Medium claws weigh 2.5 to 3 ounces, large claws 3 to 5 ounces, jumbos 5 to 7 ounces and colossal over 7 ounces.
The prices will likely change once the crabbers begin harvesting. At the moment, Frenchy’s online seafood market has medium claws for $28.95 per pound, large is $36.95 and jumbo are $45.95 per pound.
Tommy Shook, general manager of Frenchy’s Stone Crab Co. in Clearwater, said he’s optimistic about the season, but it’s difficult to make predictions.
“Everything else has been so out of control price-wise lately that I can’t imagine when the price does come out it’s not going to be steep,” Shook said.
Frenchy’s restaurants will hold their annual Stone Crab Weekend, but without the block party it has been hosting for more than 30 years.
“We didn’t think it prudent to put that many people together just yet,” Shook said.
Stone crab festivals
- The 37th annual Frenchy’s Stone Crab Weekend returns to its restaurants without the traditional block party. From Oct. 22-24, all six Frenchy’s locations will have stone crab claw specials and collectable merchandise. frenchysonline.com.
- The 28th annual Cooters Crab Fest will run Oct. 22-24 with live music and crab specials at 432 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater Beach. cooters.com.
- Clearwater Beach bar and grill Palm Pavilion has its own three-day Stone Crab Weekend on the calendar Oct. 22-24. Along with crab specials, there will be souvenirs and live music. 10 Bay Esplanade. 727-446-2642. palmpavilion.com.
- The Dunedin Stone Crab Festival, normally held in Edgewater Park, has a scaled-back version on Oct. 30 at Hog Island Fish Camp and Olde Bay Cafe. “The festival may be a bit different in its grandeur but with great seafood, amazing craft beer on tap, music to energize and you, it will continue to be the season to look forward to year after year,” festival organizers posted. See dunedinstonecrabfestival.com.
- Streets in downtown Crystal River will be closed off for the Stone Crab Jam Music Festival on Nov. 6. In addition to food, there will arts and crafts, beer, wines and six live bands on three open-air stages. It opens noon-10 p.m. Nov. 6. Admission $10. 560 N Citrus Ave., Crystal River.
- The Manatee County fishing village of Cortez will have the Cortez Stone Crab and Music Festival in November. Live music, seafood, a kids area, art vendors will be set up Nov. 13-14. Free admission. 10 a.m.-10 p.m., both days. Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar, 4628 119th St. W, Cortez. (Found at Marker 49 by boat.)