At the last meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on July 22 and 23, one of the topics of discussion was changing the regulations for stone crabs. Stone crabbers have been complaining for years about low catch weights, leaving them in a precarious situation — despite the fact their harvest is the second most valuable of Florida’s seafoods, with a dock value of $34.9 million in 2019, second only to shrimp ($44.4M last year).
Stone crabs are unique among ocean delicacies in that we do not harvest the whole animal, just its claws. The idea behind this is that most of the meat comes from the oversize claws, and after about 12 to 18 months the crab can grow a new set which can be harvested again, creating a renewable resource. Legally, both claws can be harvested.
However, the way in which commercial operators handle the crabs causes a lot of them to die. The declawing procedure itself is often fatal. According to FWC documents, the only declawing study that has been published (Davis et al., 1978) reported 47 percent of the crabs declawed by double amputation died from the trauma while 28 percent of crabs with a single amputation died. Most of these casualties (76 percent) occurred within 24 hours of declawing.
I have discussed this study with commercial crabbers before, who argued that they know how to safely break a stone crab’s claw without causing it harm. That may be, but according to the study’s authors, all researchers involved received claw removal training by a commercial crabber.
Even if the crab survives in the short term, life is harder with no claws. The crabs do have natural predators — notably loggerhead sea turtles, nurse sharks and octopus — which they use their claws to defend themselves against. They also use them to crush hard-shelled prey, including large snails and clams. A clawless crab must make do with softer foods, and also is subject to harassment by stone crabs that still have their claws.
In addition, crabs are not normally declawed immediately after capture. Instead, they’re held on board in “checker boxes.” From the FWC’s report: “While the majority of harvesters measure and remove legal claws at the end of each trap line, some hold whole crabs onboard for several hours or until they begin returning to shore. A crab’s chance of survival is dramatically reduced the longer it is held onboard because of increased stress and injuries from crushing and fighting with other crabs.”
Being held in a checker box also means the crab isn’t in the water. Stone crabs rarely leave the water voluntarily. Under current law — specifically, 68B-13.007 (3) — stone crabs in checker boxes have to be kept damp, and the containers can’t be stacked in a way that compresses the crabs.
Even so, the Davis study found 23 percent of stone crabs died after being held in checker boxes for 6 hours, and there is no specific time limitation for how long they can be kept in boxes on the water. And, when the crabs are finally released after being declawed, they’re dropped wherever the crab boat happens to be at the time, with no consideration required for whether its good crab habitat or not.
So, faced with this information, what would you do? The goal is to reduce the number of crabs that die, allowing more harvests per crab. Things that would leave more crabs alive: Reduce the amount of time in checker boxes. Better yet, eliminate checker boxes completely and require crabs be released where they’re caught. Don’t allow the harvest of both claws, which not only reduces mortality but also has the advantage of the crab eating better and regrowing the harvested claw faster.
FWC’s bold actions: Increase the minimum claw size by a teesy-tiny eighth of an inch (originally proposed as a quarter-inch, but changed due to opposition from commercial crabbers), close the season two weeks earlier on May 2 instead of May 16 (to reduce capture of egg-bearing females, and modified from the original plan of April 9 after industry pushback), and require an escape ring so undersize crabs can get out of the traps. Woo-hoo.
Now, I know some of you are going to say that I have no sympathy for the poor crabbers, out there just trying to make a living. How can I support regulating them out of business? Well, here’s how it is: If we don’t have a healthy stone crab population and then it gets knocked back further by red tide or fluctuating natural predation, they’ll all be in the unemployment line.
The only way to ensure a future for stone crabbers is to build up our crab numbers, and the best way to do that is to do the same thing I always preach to recreational anglers: Do everything possible to keep what you release from dying. I know not every crabber thinks this way, but commercial fishing has a long history of sacrificing the future to maximize today’s profits. The FWC’s job is to make sure that doesn’t happen, and I don’t think they did that job with these new rules.
Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.