Southwest Florida fishery prepares for uncertain stone crab season
Stone crabbers in Southwest Florida are facing an uncertain season, but meeting it with high hopes and optimism.
The season opens Thursday.
New crabbing regulations from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have cut the season short and raised the size limit of claws. On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic has put the restaurant industry in flux.
“We’re all looking forward to another good season,” said Kelly Kirk, owner of Kirk Fish Company on Marco Island. “This season is a new one for us with COVID and some new regulations, but we’re excited to get back to work. It’s time and we’re ready and fired up for it and hope our customers are, too.”
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FWC’s recent changes shorten the season two weeks earlier than normal and raise the minimum claw size for crabs from 2 ¾ inches to 2 7/8 inches. This season runs from Oct. 15 to May 2.
“Implementing a combination of management changes is a necessary step toward improving the stone crab fishery now,” FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley wrote in a July email. “FWC recognizes that these changes could have an effect on the economics of the fishery, but these changes are being implemented as a long-term investment in the fishery’s future."
The 2019-20 season was cut short as the coronavirus pandemic surged in the spring. FWC’s monitoring program was also cut short, and documents say traps were removed in April due to COVID-19 restrictions and no sampling was done in May.
Kirk said crabbers are likely to be more fired up this year to make up for any potential losses.
“I think, just statewide, people are going to go after it a little harder,” she said. “They might push the limits a little more with weather, go six or seven days a week to try and make up for the size increase and lost days.”
Lobster Lady Seafood Market and Bistro in Cape Coral will start selling stone crab claws when the season opens, said bar manager Sky Grodzinski. The restaurant sells the claws in different sizes: medium, large, jumbo and colossal.
She said the end of the season this past May was a little slow but doesn't expect much of a slowdown this season. Her customers are always eager to buy up the claws. Lobster Lady has not had any problems getting warm water fish this season and Grodzinski said unless a hurricane hits, she expects business as usual for stone crabs.
The season opens for recreational fishers, too. Those aged 16 and up must complete an online registration for traps before they’re allowed to use them. Daily bag limits are 1 gallon of claws per person or 2 gallons per vessel, whichever is less.
Kirk said her business also offers a retail market where customers can buy fresh claws.
The retailer is located in Goodland right next to the Little Bar restaurant and is open Monday thru Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"The crabs come fresh right off our boats, so we have complete control of quality and freshness and availability," she said.
Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Connect with him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @karlstartswithk