EVERGLADES CITY — Florida stone crabs used to be a nuisance to South Florida fishermen who tried to catch pompano and mullet in their nets, but ended up with stone crabs instead.
But Loren “Totch” Brown, a commercial fisherman in the Everglades, saw the crabs’ potential.
“The thought came to my mind that they hadn’t been commercialized any place in the United States, and that there ought to be some way to do it,” Brown wrote in his book: “Totch: A Life in the Everglades.”
Brown, since deceased, is now credited with pioneering the art of commercial stone crab catching, now a multimillion-dollar business that comprises a significant portion of the Everglades City economy.
On Saturday, decades after Brown’s preliminary trials with wooden crab traps attached to coconut buoys, local stone crab fishing boats lined up to be blessed in the Barron River.
“I thought we should do something similar to the blessing of the shrimp fleet in Fort Myers beach,” said Tod Dahlke, organizer of the event, which was held at the historic Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City. “They do this in a lot of different states for different fishing industries.”
The Florida stone crab season runs from Oct. 15 to May 15, but the crabbers can drop their weighted traps early Monday. Then the crabbers wait 10 days, until the start of the season, before retrieving the traps.
“I saw something that in my opinion should be going on already,” Dahlke said of the blessing and festivities. “It was something that will help the economy and really pay respect to these crabbers, who really deserve it.”
Nine crabbing boats, which included Slim Pickins, KitKat, and Little Liza, lined the river wall and waited for three local pastors to say a blessing and flick water on each boat with a palm frond.
A palm frond was used in the blessing because it is symbolic of the tropical climate of the Everglades.
“May each boat and crew be blessed with a good catch,” said Bob Wallace, pastor of Everglades Community Church.
Pastor John Gilmore of Copeland Baptist Church and Pastor Morris Dantin of Chokoloskee Church of God accompanied Wallace in the blessing of each boat and crew.
“It’s something new, something different, and maybe it will help,” said Bart Stokes, captain of Mine & Yours. “We’ve had a few hard years, and maybe this will kick it off.”
Before the blessings were said, several girls walked along the river, which was named after Barron Collier, throwing rose petals into the water below each boat.
“I know what God’s doing in my life and in my business,” said Howie Grimm, who works for his family’s business, Grimm’s Stone Crab Inc. “I really want these (other crabbers) to be a part of it, so they can incorporate it into their business.”
The pre-blessing festivities included live music, food, a local church bake sale and a frog-jumping contest for the children.
Most of the frogs jumped in the wrong direction, but with encouragement, a couple frogs hopped across the finish line.
“They’re nasty,” said Emma Brown, 6, whose frog completed the race. “They’re slimy.”
Many Everglades City community members’ lives are affected by the stone crab industry, so they came out Saturday to show their support.
“I’ve been out there in 14- or 15-foot waves and anyone could go out and not come home to be with their family,” said Blake Weeks, a crew member of the Little Liza. “It’s a dangerous job. They should do a ‘Deadliest Catch’ show on stone crabbing.”
Patty Bowen, who co-owns the Everglades Rod and Gun Club with her sister, Barbara Foss, said she buys seafood for her restaurant from the local fishermen.
“I know every fleet member and captain is going to be coming here,” Bowen said. “So it’s a nice thing that they decided to do.”
Totch Brown’s granddaughter, Martha, did not make it to the event in time to witness the blessing, but she shared some fond memories of her grandfather’s stone crabbing days over the phone.
“When they pull these nets up, you never know what’s going to be in them,” Brown said.
She recounted the story of how a large octopus got caught in a net.
“They threw it up on the boat, and it was very large with all its suction cups stuck to the boat. That was a funny, fond memory of stone crabbing.”
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Contact Sarah Donovan at email@example.com