NAPLES — Stone crabs are back.
From Oct. 15 to May 15, the local delicacy is available in area restaurants and seafood markets, and Nancy Webster couldn’t be happier. She was seated at a table at Kelly’s Fish House Dining Room, ready for the first claws off the boat, as she has been every year since 1971.
“I wait for this day, and I come to Kelly’s every year,” she said. “I love the stone crabs. It doesn’t taste like the Chesapeake crab, it’s a different flavor. Eating stone crabs is kind of a sensual experience – the touchy-feely aspect is important.”
Her 96-year-old mother, she said, would agree, and her two sons, both in their 40s, always want stone crabs for their birthdays.
For Webster, the ideal stone crab meal includes coleslaw, a baked potato, dark beer, and, of course, key lime pie.
When there is so much confusion about what seafood should or should not be eaten, with concern about fisheries collapsing and high levels of toxins in some seafood, stone crabs are also the ecological choice in shellfish. Unique among Florida fisheries, stone crab claws are harvested without killing the crabs, making them the ultimate renewable resource.
Captain Jim Miller, bringing in the first day’s catch on his boat the Ol Crab, noted that while claws must be of legal size to be harvested, the idea that only one claw is taken is just a myth.
“That’s an old fable,” he said. “There’s never been a law you only take one claw.”
The size, he said, is the determining factor.
Claws have to measure 2 3/4 inches from the knuckle to the end of the claw.
Claws removed, the crabs are returned to the Gulf, where their survival rate, Miller said, is 85 percent or better.
Miller said he brought in a few more crabs than on opening day last year, but declined to predict how the season would pan out.
According to Bill Winans, speaking as he worked processing and grading the first catch of the season for Combs Fish Company, the success of this season will depend on events above the water, not below.
“This will be a season regulated by the economy,” he predicted. “A year ago, nobody would turn a dime loose. People are still scared, but maybe now they feel this is a luxury they deserve. We’ll see how it goes.”
A crabber himself for many years, Winans doesn’t care for stone crabs, and said he will eat his quota for the season tonight — one claw.
Randy Essig, owner of Randy’s Fishmarket Restaurant, was willing to express some optimism about the stone crab supply this year.
“Hopefully, prices will be lower this year. There were no storms this year, and that helps bigtime,” he said.
Essig prefers his stone crabs cold, with melted butter, although he also expressed a liking for mustard sauce. His restaurant and seafood market will have the claws available first thing Friday, he said.
Employees at Captain Jerry’s Seafood inside Wynn’s Market said they had been fielding inquiries from customers, and would have them Friday morning, but did not know yet what the prices would be.
According to the Associated Press, prices statewide per pound for stone crab claws were expected to start about the same as last year: $10 for medium, $15 for large, and $20 to $22 dollars for jumbo. There are, apparently, no small stone crab claws.
Last season, 2.92 million pounds of claws were harvested in Florida, down from 3.15 million pounds the year before, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.