Ride along as two FWRI researchers experience a day on the water
with a commercial stone crab fishing crew.
In 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI)
initiated a wide-ranging, long-term project to collect data
essential to the successful management of the Florida stone crab fishery. The FWRI stone
crab monitoring program currently has sampling locations in three
regions of the state: southwest Florida including the Florida Keys,
northwest Florida, and west-central Florida. In both the northwest
Florida and southwest Florida regions, four locations are sampled
every two weeks. The field crews each consist of two biologists,
based at the FWRI field labs in Cedar Key and Marathon. At each
location, 20 stone crab traps are deployed in four trap lines of
five traps each. The trap lines are placed from inshore to
offshore. Local commercial stone crab fisherman are contracted to
transport the field crews to the research trap lines.
The leaders of the northwest Florida and southwest Florida field
crews coordinate their sampling schedules with the respective
fishermen at each location. On a typical field day, the crew will
meet with the fishermen in the morning, and then travel to the trap
lines to service the traps. They pull each trap and record the trap
condition, trap fouling organisms, degree of fouling, and bycatch. After the stone
crabs are collected, they record data on stone crab abundance, size, claw
types (on a stone crab, original and regenerated claws can be
distinguished), sex, molt condition, fouling
organisms (such as barnacles), and injuries. Once this information
has been recorded, the live crabs are returned to the water.
Field crews will also collect data on physical factors such as
the water temperature and salinity. Every other
trip, they scrape all the fouling organisms off of the traps, and
collect and measure the juvenile stone crabs that
live in the fouling. A field day in which the 20 traps are serviced
can be as short as a half-day to an entire day, depending on
weather conditions, whether or not the traps are scraped, and crab
abundance. Clearly, these field days are quite different from a
typical stone crab fishing day for a commercial fisherman.
The commercial stone crab season starts October 15 and runs
through May 15. Both northwest and southwest Florida region field
crews were invited to experience a "day at the office" on the water
with one of the commercial fisherman. The northwest region crew
observed the opening day of the season while the southwest crew
went out a month later. The trips offered a new perspective and
learning experience since the scientists were able to observe a
working commercial vessel harvesting claws, which was a change of
pace from their typical sampling routine. The following reports are
two separate perspectives on what the days of observation entailed.
In Nathan Mulkey's report, he highlights the observations of his
crew on the season's opening day with David Lawson in Homosassa.
Jessica Snook details her crew's experience off of Big Pine Key
during a trip with fisherman Dan Fitch.
Stone Crab Opening Day in
By Nathan Mulkey
"More than one of the commercial fishermen we work with on a
weekly basis had extended an invitation for us to attend the
opening day harvest of the crab claws many of us cherish on our
dinner plates. Although all offers seemed genuine, one captain's
invitation made it particularly evident that he really wanted us to
come along and experience a day on the water with a commercial
stone crabbing crew. Why? Because stone crabbers, and most
commercial fishermen, are very proud of what they do. After
spending the entire day on the water with these guys, I gained a
new respect for what they are able to do and how they go about
"We attended the opener with David Lawson (also known as 'D.J.')
and his two mates, Tex (says that on his Florida Identification
Card) and Danny. There were a few things I wanted to get out of
this trip. The first thing was just the overall experience of
tagging along on a commercial crabbing vessel and actually seeing
how they go about harvesting thousands of claws. This would consist
of the entire process up to loading the cooked claws onto a
delivery truck. Questions I wanted answered were: How many claws
were harvested? What percentage of the claws was regenerated? What
percentage were floaters? How many traps
were used? D.J. answered most of my questions, and a further study
could answer the remaining questions.
"To begin our trip, we met at the dock
just before 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 15, 2006. Just after the
final box of bait was loaded on board, we set out toward the first
line of traps. The marine forecast called for windy, choppy
conditions with waves five- to eight-feet well offshore. Although
we were prepared for the worst, our captain decided to stay inshore
and pull his shallow lines, which were about four to six miles
offshore. All traps that were pulled on this day were wooden with
no bait cups. All traps were re-baited with either one or two pigs'
feet. Pig's feet are the bait of choice when the water is still
warm due to their 'staying power.' When the water cools down a bit,
fishermen will switch to mullet and grouper or shark heads.
"Commercial stone crabbers may only harvest between the hours of
sunrise and sunset. Pulling traps at night is prohibited. As the
sun started to rise, the first line of the day was pulled. D.J.'s
fishing vessel is 42-feet long with two hydraulic trap pullers in
the stern [rear of the boat]. Tex operated the port [left] side
puller while Danny operated the starboard [right] side. On standby
were pre-made wooden lids to replace any broken lids on the traps.
Several boxes of pigs' feet lay just behind the pullers. On the
deck of the boat next to each puller was a bucket of salt water
into which the harvested claws would be dropped. Between the two
pullers was a separate container used for holding crabs with claws
of questionable size. These crabs would be measured at the end of
the line to determine legality. Claws may only be harvested if they
are 2 ¾ inches propodus [the immovable
part of the claw] length. It is illegal to possess a whole stone
crab or harvest the claws of any egg-bearing females.
"The first line consisted of 200 traps
in a continuous line that was literally miles long. This surprised
me because I am used to working with or seeing lines consisting of
5-20 traps. Later I found out that, after the completion of the
first full week of pulling, the fisherman break up the line into
smaller ones depending on the location of the crabs.
"One of the elements of the trip that impressed me the most was
the teamwork that enables this machine of an operation to run so
smoothly. The captain approaches the first buoy and the fisherman
on the port side pulls the first trap. As he services that trap
(harvesting claws, discarding old bait and bycatch, and re-baiting
the trap), the fisherman on the starboard side pulls the next trap
in the line. Thus, the line is always moving. One buoy replaces the
previous one; by the time the boat reaches the end of the line, the
entire location of the line will have shifted by the distance
between any two buoys. The captain revs the engine to signal the
puller to drop the trap back into the water. By the time he drops
the trap, the next buoy is right in front of him ready to be
"The captain navigates the boat in a zigzag fashion through the
straight line of buoys, alternating each side of the boat. Tex and
Danny are always working in tandem, and neither of them is ever
doing what the other one is at any given time. The only issues
slowing down the machine are repairs to the traps. When a trap
requires maintenance, a crewman yells out, 'Repair!' and there is a
break in the action.
"To review, a trap is pulled, and then the legal-sized claws are
determined and broken off the crab. The harvested claws go into a
bucket of salt water while the body of the crab is thrown
overboard. The traps are re-baited and put back into the large line
of traps in the water.
"Most impressive was the speed and efficiency with which these
guys accomplish the procedure. As the buckets of claws began to
overflow, they were moved to a larger crate until the vessel
returned to dock. It is important to note that the survival rate
for any individual crab increases when a clean break at a
particular location is administered. These fishermen are skilled at
breaking the claws at just the right spot, so as to not harm or
kill the crabs.
"During our observation, D.J., Tex and Danny pulled
six lines totaling 943 traps. The total number of traps D.J. has
this season is about 4,400. Overall, they harvested approximately
600 pounds of stone crab claws on the opening day. The time on the
water was about 12 hours. The claws were cooked immediately upon
arrival back at the dock. The Lawson's have their own boiler where
the claws were cooked in bulk for 13 minutes, and then cooled for
10 minutes to allow for the crab meat to pull away from the shell.
Graders then separated the claws into size categories consisting of
regular, large, and jumbo. Floaters, which are claws with less meat
proportional to their shell size, are sold at a lower cost.
Floaters get their name because they float at the surface of the
water while being cooked. After the claws were graded, they were
loaded onto a truck that night to be delivered to their final
"We did not get a chance to quantify the number of floaters or
regenerated claws harvested for the day. Based on what I saw, the
vast majority were original claws. It would be interesting to go
out again in the future and spend more time answering these
questions. Taking a random sample of harvested claws from each
crate and recording the claw type may be a good way to extrapolate
the percentage of claws that were regenerated. In order to
determine the percentage of floaters, we would need to stick around
the boiler and record how many we see.
"The trip was a unique opportunity that we were happy to have
been able to experience. I had been hearing for months about how
these fishermen went about their stone crab operation. After
experiencing it myself, I know that seeing is believing."
Stone Crab Fishing in
By Jess Snook
"Due to weather and obligations to our normal sampling routine,
my partner and I had to wait until one month after stone crab
season opened to witness commercial stone crab fishing firsthand.
On the morning of November 16, 2006, we met Dan Fitch and his mate,
José, at Dan's dock to observe his fishing operation. First, let me
tell you about Dan:
"Dan is a commercial lobsterman and stone crab fisherman and
also a member of the Florida Keys
Commercial Fishermen's Association. Compared to many stone crab
fishermen in the industry, Dan is a small-time fisherman with about
480 stone crab traps fishing at a time. When not out pulling his
own traps, Dan provides his services to us twice a month by taking
us from Big Pine Key to our research stone crab traps off of Harbor
"The day we observed Dan pulling his
traps was very windy and overcast. It would have been far too rough
of a day to reach our research traps out in Florida Bay. However,
some of Dan's trap lines were located in Spanish Harbor Channel,
which was protected by surrounding islands that kept the water from
becoming too choppy. We only had to contend with the boat blowing
off course and the change of tides. Fortunately, the wind and the
tide were somewhat in alignment, allowing Dan to work down the trap
lines with the wind and current pushing the boat.
"The style of Dan's boat allowed him to maneuver it from the
stern. By doing this, not only could he drive the boat, but also
pull the traps at the same time. After hooking a buoy and pulling
the line into the boat, Dan turned on his hydraulic trap puller and
fed the line into the spinning wheel, which in turn pulled the trap
up and onto the boat. Then José dragged the traps away from the
trap puller to sort out the catch.
"Commercial crabbing is all about speed
and efficiency because that is how the fishermen earn their living.
By being on a commercial boat, we got to experience this firsthand.
If there appeared to be nothing in a trap, José did not even bother
to open the trap. He tossed a pig's foot or two (the bait of choice
for commercial fishermen) in through the throat of the trap and
pushed the trap overboard. If there was bycatch in the trap, José
was a mass of whirling arms and flying sea life. If there were
stone crabs in the trap, José was a courageous soul and dug right
in, grabbing the crabs by both claws and breaking off the
legal-sized claws before tossing the crabs overboard. Next to José
was a bucket of sea water into which he tossed the legal claws.
After pulling a line, the bucket was set off to the side and a new
bucket full of sea water replaced it.
"As researchers, we always open the trap and note anything that
is found inside. Then we tie the trap shut. The next time we pull
the trap we can tell if it has been molested if the tie is missing.
For a commercial fisherman, these things waste valuable time.
journeyed to the next line, José opened up another box of pigs'
feet and readied himself for the next line. Both captain and mate
showed obvious excitement when pulling up a full trap and
frustration when pulling up an empty trap. I am sure I would feel
the same way if my pay for the day depended on what appeared in
"On the way in, all the claws were dumped into a tub to let the
sea water drain off in order for the claws to be weighed. Before
returning to the dock, we stopped to see the buyer to weigh the
claws and trade them for a receipt. The buyer then took the claws
to be sorted according to size and cooked. Claws can be sorted into
up to five categories: Medium, Large, Jumbo, Colossal, and
"When the claws are sorted, Dan usually has more of the larger
grades of claws, which makes his catch worth more money per pound.
Although we were not there to see the claws graded out, Dan's final
weight for the day was about 90 pounds for 297 traps pulled. This
averages out to a little under a third of a pound of claws per
trap. According to some fishermen in south Florida, their fishing
trip pays for itself if there is about a third of a pound of claws
per trap. Unlike many fishermen down here though, Dan's traps are
very close to his dock so he does not burn as much fuel pulling his
traps. This, along with the higher-graded claws he catches, helps
him to average out a little better.
my partner and I took pictures and recorded data. Of the 297 traps
pulled, there were 403 legal claws, giving a catch per unit effort
(CPUE) of 1.36 claws per trap. Dan's best line had a CPUE of 1.70
claws per trap. We also had a chance to sort the claws. We looked
to see if the claws were original or regenerated, and also if they
were crushers or pincers; 88 percent of the claws were original and
63 percent of those original claws were crushers. The traps pulled
that day had been soaking for 14 nights.
"Observing commercial stone crabbers at work made me respect
them even more. Fishermen and their mates work hard without much
guarantee on return. All of the effort they put in can be gone in a
heartbeat due to Mother Nature. Fortunately, the detrimental
hurricanes of the past few seasons took a break in 2006, but the
next season is always around the corner. Most of us are not willing
to take that kind of risk in our careers, but these fishermen show
courage in continuing their lifestyle. I feel very fortunate to
have seen a member of the commercial stone crab industry at work. I
appreciate and enjoyed the opportunity Dan gave me to see what real
stone crabbers do."