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After surprisingly strong sales and heavy demand for Florida stone crabs, the season ends two weeks earlier than ever — on May 1 — and traps must be removed from the water by May 2.
That timing – a week before Mother’s Day – presents an inconvenient problem for seafood eateries like Catfish Dewey’s in Oakland Park. Namely: For the first time in the restaurant’s 37-year history, there will be no fresh-caught claws for the holiday.
Crabbers at Catfish Dewey’s fishery on the Gulf Coast pulled their final traps on Thursday. Owner Dewey Culbreth, mulling creative ways to stretch the shelf life of his claws, decided to stick his stockpile in the freezer. For Mother’s Day weekend he plans to thaw them over 48 hours so the claw meat retains its sweetness and moisture on Sunday, May 9.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever tried this,” Culbreth says. “We always have fresh claws for Mother’s Day, and now we don’t. It makes a difference to freeze them when they’re very fresh. Of course, people can tell the difference between fresh and frozen, but what am I going to do? People want stone crabs.”
Mother’s Day wasn’t a concern for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which last summer created four new permanent rules aimed at protecting the state’s stone crab population after years of declining harvests. The 2020 stone crab season kicked off Oct. 15.
“A lot of people this year will be eating frozen for Mother’s Day,” says fishmonger and chef Dylan Hepner of Sea Salt Fish Market in Fort Lauderdale. He says fresh jumbo and colossal claws have been harder to find this season, and prices, which held steady all season, are now above-average. Medium-size claws that began the season at $18.99 per pound, for example, now cost $30 per pound.
“What we get tomorrow will be our last delivery of the season, and fresh claws won’t last that long,” says Hepner, whose market won’t sell frozen crabs. “Everything will be gone by this Sunday, not next Sunday.”
Kelly Kirk, co-founder of the Florida Stone Crabbers Association and owner of the Kirk Fish Company on Marco Island, says ending the stone-crab season two weeks early is “unfortunate.” Her seasonal market, which counts on stone crabs for 80 percent of its sales, will also shut down two weeks early without fresh claws. Kirk’s seven crabbers pulled traps on Wednesday.
“I’ll be out of product by Saturday,” Kirk says. “We begged [Florida Fish and Wildlife] to end the season after Mother’s Day, which really marks the end of the tourist season. We don’t agree with the new regulations but we’re resilient, and we have no choice but to adapt.”
About 1.92 million pounds of stone crabs were harvested in 2020 and, according to Florida Fish & Wildlife’s most-recent commercial landings data, some 418,000 pounds so far in 2021. Spokesperson Amanda Nalley says those figures will certainly rise but will take several more months before an accurate tally is ready.
“We don’t even have full data from 2020 yet,” Nalley says. “It’s still coming in. Right now we can’t say we’ve had more landings this year over last year. All we have are anecdotes from the restaurants and the fisheries.”
Brian Hershey, owner of Billy’s Stone Crab in Hollywood, says his harvests have been lighter all season. He operates two Florida Keys fisheries, one on Summerland Key at mile marker 25 and another in Marathon near the Seven Mile Bridge. His 40 boats have run into heavy winds the past few weeks that have prevented crabbers from checking traps. To compensate, he decided to buy extra stone crab from a fishery in Hernando Beach.
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This weekend, he plans to flash-freeze these claws for Mother’s Day.
“I probably won’t have fresh but the flavor of the meat is still fine, because it’s being frozen this early, and the stone crab will only be in the freezer for about two weeks,” Hershey says.
Still, he acknowledges that customers are sticklers for stone crabs, and they can tell the difference. But Hershey has a trick.
“When it comes time to thaw, I dip it in an ice bath, and it puts an ice glaze around the meat and preserves it instead of drying it out,” he says.