Stone crab season gets cracking

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Stone crabs sitting ready for sale at Key Largo Fisheries.
Stone crabs sitting ready for sale at Key Largo Fisheries. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

Stone crabs, one of Florida's tastiest local food offerings, came into season on Oct. 15. To celebrate, many communities are throwing a party.

This coming weekend alone, Clearwater Beach, Naples and the town of St. Marks, about 20 miles south of Tallahassee, will all hold stone crab festivals. Meanwhile, the Miami Beach Seafood Festival runs through Saturday. And though stone crabs aren't in the name of the festival, they'll be on offer from Joe's in South Beach, the world's best-known stone crab purveyor. More stone crab festivals will be taking place as the seven-month season, which ends on May 15, continues. For example, Crystal River, about an hour north of St. Pete Beach on the Gulf coast, holds its Stone Crab Jam on Nov. 7, and the Key Largo Stone Crab and Seafood Festival is on Jan. 31.

So why all the fuss about a crab? After all, Florida is known for all kinds of seafood, from Apalachicola oysters to various types of snapper and grouper and spiny lobsters.

“It's the magic of the stone crab,” offers Tom Hill, the owner of Key Largo Fisheries, a working fish house that does big business in stone crab. “You catch them here in Florida. Other places have crabs, but only Florida has the stone crab.”

Mickey Cantner, an organizer of this weekend's St. Marks Stone Crab Festival, which is expected to bring about 15,000 people to the town of 300, offered a more straightforward response.

“It's very tender and delectable,” she said. “For me, it's next to lobster. It's a very sweet meat.”

Indeed, few people whom I've spoken to through the years (and due to my own love of stone crabs, I've spoken to many) would argue that the flaky, white meat of a stone crab claw is anything other than exceedingly tender and sweet. But along with taste, there are other factors that add to the romanticism of eating stone crab.

Notably, the crabs aren't killed when they're harvested. Rather, trappers simply remove one or both of a crab's claws, then return it to the water. The crabs are capable of regrowing their claws several times during a lifetime. Indeed, approximately 20% of the stone crab claws brought into fish houses are regenerated, according to state biologists.

As Hill pointed out, stone crabs are also very much a Florida-specific product. They were first harvested and sold commercially less than a century ago by Joe Weiss of the aforementioned Joe's. And though these days more than 2 million pounds of stone crab claws are harvested in Florida during a typical year, a short shelf  life of three to five days makes them difficult to ship. As a result, stone crabs, while obtainable in major markets at premium prices, still aren't widely available outside of the Sunshine State.

Recently, while offering dining advice to a couple of visitors to the Florida Keys from Wisconsin, I informed them that the stone crab season was about to begin. To my surprise, the visitors had never even heard of the creatures. But after listening to my strong recommendation, they sounded excited to give them a try.

I didn't get a chance to find out what these two dive buddies thought of the crab claws, but I'm guessing that if they did get a chance to taste them, they won't forget it.

Stone crabs might not draw tourists to Florida all by themselves. But behind beaches and winter warmth, they're a strong secondary reason for visitors to come here between mid-October and mid-May. And those who do may just find a nearby festival dedicated to Florida's quintessential crab.

Visit www.floridarambler.com for more information on stone crab and seafood festivals in Florida this fall, winter and spring.

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