Life of a stone crab fisherman: Part one

Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series of three articles about the just opened stone crab season. It describes the Everglades City stone crab business and follows Jonathan Speck, a stone crab fisherman in Everglades City.

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Everglades City is considered the stone crab capital of the world. It’s a title that the city and stone crab fishermen have all earned. Today, stone crabbing is a competitive business and the money is not what it used to be. Yet, each fisherman will tell you they can’t get it out of their blood.

Jonathan Speck is a stone crab fisherman. He grew up in Alexandria, Va. He attended Rutgers University but found that a structured lifestyle wasn’t for him. Speck hopped on a motorcycle and soon ended up in Big Pine Key south of Marathon in the Florida Keys. Needing work, in 1993 he stepped on a crab boat as a hired hand and he’s been hooked ever since.

He bought his first boat in 1996, a 24-foot Morgan, and it sank the first day out. He retrieved the boat, put in a new motor and completely reworked the hull. Then in 1998, Hurricane George went through the Caribbean and Speck took his boat to Everglades City to escape the hurricane. He now has his own business, Crab Wolf LLC, and he’s been crabbing for 16 years. He still has the same boat today that he’s reworked many times over.

Crabbers are unique and they challenge the unknown. They stick with a business that’s uncertain from one season to the next. They’re motivated by freedom and independence from the traditional workday. Although they experience constant setbacks, their spirits are high. Crabbers work around the clock in and out of season. The business involves maintaining traps, repairing boats, fighting weather conditions, and dealing with seasonal catch limits. Yet, each crabber has the determination and grit to succeed.

They believe each new season will be better than the last. They hope the catch will be bigger than last year, that the price will be higher than last year and, please, no hurricanes. Hurricane Wilma devastated their business in 2005. Many traps were never located and some were found hanging from trees.

On Oct. 3, Everglades City blessed the stone crab fleet and prayed for everyone’s safety. The next day, the docks along Barron River were busy. Traps were being moved by the pallet load and boats were being loaded. Frozen pigs feet, the preferred bait for stone crabs, was placed in each trap in preparation of the 12:01 a.m. season opening for the setting of traps. Thousands of traps were lowered in the waters before the morning sunrise of Oct. 5. Crabbers started harvesting the traps Oct. 15 and continue a daily harvest.

Traps weigh 25 to 35 pounds each. Most of the weight is 1 to 2 inches of concrete in the bottom that holds them to the ocean floor. The trap is attached to a rope and buoy. Several traps are set in various formations such as a straight line, L shape or circle. They are placed in 10 to 30 feet of water. A crabber may go up to 45 miles into the waters to set traps. Some crabbers have 10,000 to 12,000 traps. Each crabber must register their number of traps with the Florida Department of Agriculture. The department controls the total number of traps for each season.

On Oct. 4, Speck and his employees loaded about 2,000 traps. They were all set in the Gulf waters the early morning of Oct. 5.

(The second article, which will appear in next week’s Community section, covers setting the traps. Also, the daily risks each crabber confronts in the Gulf to bring stone crabs to your table.)

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Wendell Brown, a Naples photographer, can be reached at gooddips1@comcast.net. His Web site is whbrownphotography.com. Jonathan Speck may be reached at (239) 821-7493.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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