Claws for celebration
The delicious reward for harvesting stone crabs is worth the work
With claws powerful enough to crush oyster shells, just imagine what a stone crab could do to a finger. To catch them, a good deal of courage and strong hands will be needed. If bought, the only thing to worry about is your wallet getting pinched. They often fetch more than $50 a pound. No matter how you get your hands on them, stone crab claws are the sweetest, most delectable meat ever tasted.
My family gathers for the opening of stone crab season each year. We spend long days in the sun trying to catch our limit. As the sun goes down, we clean up the boat, then head to the kitchen to cook the day’s catch. We spend evenings on the porch eating claws, drinking rum and telling stories about monster stone crabs and other wild things we saw underwater that day. Then next morning, we slather on more sunscreen and do it all over again. We call it Stonecrabaganza,
a family tradition.
Stone crabs are a uniquely sustainable seafood because only the claws are harvested; the live crab goes back in the water. The ability to release their claws is a natural defense mechanism that helps them escape predators like grouper, octopus and sea turtles. Crabs can regenerate their claws up to four times.
Even though stone crab is a naturally resilient fishery, demand has skyrocketed. To rebuild stock and protect this incredible resource, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission adopted new rules last year. The season is two weeks shorter, running from Oct. 15 through May 1, and the minimum claw size has increased to 2 7/8 inches.
Another important regulation remains unchanged: If you notice a brown or orange sponge under the carapace, that’s an egg-bearing female, which is completely off limits. Each harvester can keep 1 gallon of claws per day, or 2 gallons per boat, whichever is less.
There are two options to use when catching stone crabs. The first and most common way to catch them is traps. Anyone with a recreational saltwater fishing license can register five recreational traps online for free. Trap specifications are also strictly regulated, so check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s website for more details.
The traps have to be baited and the stinkier the bait the better. Fish heads are a popular choice. Once set, the traps need to be checked every few days. It’s a great excuse to get out on the water with family and friends and, if lucky, you’ll go home with a nice dinner. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because trapping the crabs is only half the battle. Once the trap is on the boat, you have to grab each crab and coax them into giving up a claw.
A stone crab looks like a bouncer, with pumped-up, oversized claws folded in front of its body, and little eyes peering out above them. The two claws look different. One is a crusher claw, usually the larger of the two, and often on the right side. That’s the one that can inflict 19,000 pounds of pressure per inch, about four times more than a crocodile. The other, more tapered claw, is the pincer claw. They use it to cut and tear prey. If there is an unbroken fingerprint just below the bottom pincer, this means it is an original claw that has never been regenerated.
To handle stone crabs, wear sturdy, protective gloves. To properly declaw them, hold them at the base of each claw where it meets the carapace. The key is to apply firm pressure at just the right spot, which triggers them to release the claw. With the right technique, the crab has a much better chance of survival and can regenerate. While legally both claws can be taken, it’s rare to find a crab with two of legal size, and the state conservation commission encourages harvesters to take only one claw so the released crab will be able to defend itself from predators.
WATCH THE FINGERS
The second option is diving for stone crabs, using snorkel or scuba gear. If you like a thrill and don’t mind sticking your arm in a hole in the sea floor, this might be for you. Stone crabs are harder to spot than spiny lobsters. There are no tell-tale antennae hanging out of their burrows. After a while you get an eye for what the holes look like, but then you’ve got to be sure it’s a stone crab living in there. We’ve seen moray eels and many other creatures in the holes, so definitely take a look before you reach inside.
All stone crab claws have to be cooked the day they’re caught. If not, the meat will stick to the shell and be difficult to crack. For perfectly cooked stone crab claws, boil the claws between eight and 12 minutes, depending on the size, then immediately plunge the claws into ice water. Keep them submerged in the ice with a plate or pot lid. Allow them to sit in the ice bath for at least 20 minutes, then drain them well and refrigerate. If you buy the claws from the seafood market, they’re always pre-cooked, and you may as well have them cracked for you, too.
We like to crack all the claws at the fish cleaning table rather than at the dinner table. It’s a messy job, and one stray bit of crab shell will stink to high heaven the next day. There are lots of tools and techniques. We use a lever device made just for stone crab claws, which you can buy at seafood markets and online.
The key is to get a single, clean break in all three sections of each crab claw. You don’t want to crush the shell into the meat. It’s like biting into a shard of glass. When done right, gently pull apart each section to reveal whole hunks of salty-sweet, succulent meat.
I look forward to our stone crab claw feast all year. There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting down to a meal we caught and cooked for ourselves. We give thanks for family and friends, the great state of Florida and this delectable meal. As I look around the table, there’s always more than one black and blue finger, but so far, all digits are accounted for.