Seafood lovers, rejoice: Stone crab season kicked off this past Saturday, Oct. 15. The sweet, buttery meat is worth its weight in gold (or sometimes more, depending on market prices). But what diners might not know is just how sustainable this Southwest Florida delicacy is.
When fishermen haul up their traps, the stone crabs themselves aren’t harvested—just their claws, which must be at least 2 ¾ inches long. After the claws have been removed, the animal is returned to the water where, within a year, it will regenerate its lost appendage. The claws, which don’t hold up to freezing, quickly make their way to restaurants and kitchens, where we diners have the pleasure of gobbling them up.
It’s legal to harvest both claws from a single animal (provided they’re both big enough), but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission recommends just taking one, so that the crab can feed and protect itself.
After being steamed, the claws are served still in their shell (pre-cracked or alongside a hammer), hot or cold, with drawn butter or a special mustard sauce.
The claw regeneration serves a practical purpose in the wild. The crab can abandon a limb if it’s been injured or to escape a predator.
Stone crab claws can be harvested from Oct. 15 to May 15, coinciding with the creature’s natural period of molting and limb-regeneration. Spring and summer are for spawning.
The Numbers Game
After a few seasons of declining harvests (and increasing prices), the 2015-2016 Florida stone crab season yielded nearly 3 million pounds of claws—1 million more than two years ago.
Florida stone crabs (and their close relative, the Gulf stone crab) can be found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coasts, but they’re almost solely harvested in the Sunshine State.
Another sign of their Southwest Florida popularity? The Charlotte Stone Crabs are the single-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays Major League baseball team.