For Florida Keys commercial fishermen, the start of the stone crab claw harvest season Thursday means new regulations to protect future crab stocks and uncertainties about the market for claws because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission‘s new protections include increasing the minimum size of a harvested claw from 2 3/4 inches to 2 7/8 inches; reducing the harvest season by two weeks and modifying traps to have a 2 3/16-inch escape ring.
Gary Graves, vice president of Keys Fisheries, one of the state’s largest processors of the tasty claws, said many commercial fishermen’s traps in the Florida Keys are already compliant, even though those modifications aren’t required to be completed until the start of the 2023-2024 season.
He said commercial fishermen around the state worked with FWC officials to institute the new practices to ensure future harvests.
“We’re in favor of this (new regulations) to rebuild the fishery,” Graves said, adding that about 2.1 million pounds of claws were harvested last year around Florida. “Probably in four or five years, we’ll be able to start catching three or three-and-a-half million pounds (annually) like we used to.”
Graves said the COVID-19 pandemic has fishermen on edge because most commercially harvested claws are sold to restaurants across Florida.
“Retail, I think, is strong,” Graves said. “We see a lot of people ordering (seafood) online or going to the grocery store and buying and eating at home.
“But we just don’t know what restaurants are going to do this year in Florida, which are the largest consumers of the crab,” he said.
Stone crab season is to end May 1.
Stone crabs are one of the world’s few renewable seafood resources, Graves said. The crab has the capability of regrowing claws to replace those that are harvested.