Living Sanibel: Stone crabs most expensive seafood in U.S.
Long considered a Florida delicacy, the stone crab is highly sought after by seafood lovers. Literally tens of thousands of stone crab traps are put into the nearshore gulf waters from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys every season, which runs from Oct. 15 to May 15. The annual harvest of claws in 2008 was estimated to be more than 3.1 million pounds. Stone crab, per pound, is the most expensive seafood served in the U.S.
The stone crab harvest is different from the blue crab in that the whole crab is never taken, only its claws, which constitute 50 percent of its body weight. The living animal is tossed back into the ocean, allowed to regenerate its lost claws over the next two to three years. The mortality rate of the declawed stone crabs is quite high, however, with studies indicating that as many as 47 percent of the crabs die when both claws are taken and 28 percent die after a single amputation. As high as these numbers are, they are still more sustainable than the blue crab fishery where the whole crab is taken.
The stone crab is fairly commonly observed inshore, often found clinging to the edge of the concrete spillways under Wildlife Drive in “Ding” Darling. The crabs seen in these areas are juveniles, seldom larger than an inch or two across. They are a popular food for night herons, bonnethead sharks, stingrays, and cow-nosed rays, as well as octopus. The stone crab feeds on detritus, carrion, algae, and marine mollusks, including oysters and scallops.
The official state crustacean of Maryland, the blue crab was once very abundant in the waters and inlets of the Chesapeake Bay. In recent years these crabs, along with horseshoe crabs and Chesapeake oysters, have decreased dramatically as a result of coastal pollution. Locally the blue crab can still be found around the seven spillways that run beneath Wildlife Drive in the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge, though nowhere near the numbers of 20 years ago.
This prized commercial shellfish can be purchased fresh at several fish markets in Lee County. During the harvest season the deeper waters of Pine Island Sound and San Carlos Bay are riddled with the floating Styrofoam crab-trap markers, making every boat captain concerned about “catching a trap or wrapping a trap-line.” It’s interesting to note that although it’s a popular food from the Atlantic coast to Argentina, the blue crab is considered too small to bother with along the Pacific Coast of Central and South America and is left unharvested.
Hitch-hiking across the ocean in the ballast of commercial shipping vessels, the blue crab is considered an invasive species in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Mediterranean, and the Black Sea where, when discovered, it is immediately eradicated. The blue crab is fed upon by humans, cownose rays, tarpon, permit, and sharks; immature crabs are speared by great blue herons and anhinga.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.