Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series of three articles about the recently-opened stone crab season. It describes the stone crab business and follows Jonathan Speck, a stone crab fisherman in Everglades City. This final article, told in first person by Wendell Brown, describes a 15-hour day spent crab fishing on Speck’s boat.
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It was 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, and I had just arrived at the dock in Everglades City where Jonathan Speck docks his boat. Just as I got out of my truck, an older man rode up on his bicycle and asked “Do you smoke?” I said “no” then he said, “I’m trying to quit” and rode away.
Speck arrived with his worker Carlos Anhilon. Speck cautioned me, saying “If you get sick out there you know we can’t bring you back.”
“I’ll be OK,” I told him.
Seven crates of frozen pigs feet were loaded on the boat, the diesel engine fired up and we pulled away at 4:00 a.m. I thought I had a clear vision of how the day would transpire.
The waters were smooth and the engine hum brought a feeling of solitude. The sky was crystal clear and the stars looked like fireworks. I saw the first shooting star I’d seen in years. I began to understand how these fisherman get hooked on this business. We traveled for two hours and arrived at our destination at 6:00 a.m. It was still dark so Speck and Anhilon took a 30-minute nap. At the time I didn’t understand why but that soon became very clear.
At 6:30 a.m. “the flood gates opened,” or maybe I should say “all hell broke loose” and it didn’t stop until 6:00 p.m. The first buoy was hooked, the rope was attached to the automatic pulley motor, the trap was reeled up, live crabs were put into a holding crate, fresh pigs feet bait was put in the trap, then the buoy and trap were tossed back into the ocean. That happened in 15 seconds or less.
Within 10 seconds, the boat arrived at another buoy and the process started all over again. Harvesting continued until each trap in the group of 100 was emptied then it was on to another group of traps about 30 minutes away. While traveling between trap groups, the stone crab claw was removed and the live crab was put back into the water. Everyone grabbed a water and snack before arriving at the next group of traps. Harvesting continued for the next 11 hours.
One group of 100 crab traps were not producing a good average per trap. Those traps were pulled and relocated to another area. Relocating traps means more time and work but it’s necessary to keep a high yield of stone crabs per trap. Speck has since reported to me that those traps have quadrupled in yield.
The harvesting process continued as waves were getting taller, water was splashing higher and white caps were starting to show. As each trap was emptied, ocean crust fell into the boat, small fish fell out of traps and old bait fell into the boat. After three hours we stopped to completely hose out the inside of the boat. That was done no less than three times during the day.
I was snapping photos and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. The day was perfect for photography. Fluffy clouds were floating by and the sky had a deep blue hue. I attributed my tired, weak and sleepy feeling to my early morning rise but instead it was motion sickness. While I didn’t get stomach sick I had to take a power nap in a small corner of the boat. I soon got my energy back but my motion sickness didn’t slow the crab harvesting.
At about 6:00 p.m. the boat was hosed out for the last time and we headed back to dock. Anhilon napped and it was a peaceful ride as the waters were smoother near land. We arrived at the dock at 7:00 p.m. and Speck quickly took the stone crab claws to a local market and sold them. Crabbers don’t like to publicly disclose daily pound yields.
Crabbing is very hard labor so please appreciate the work it takes to get stone crabs to your table.