Skip to main content

Observations of the Stone Crab Commercial Fishery

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 Northwest Florida 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 doing it.

"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 pulled.

"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 destination.

"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 Southwest Florida 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 Key.

"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.

"As we 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 those traps.

"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 Floaters.

"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.

"While observing, 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."