FLORIDA KEYS — The stone crab season opened last Thursday, but with greater restrictions on commercial and recreational fishermen, including larger harvestable claws and a shorter season.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff first proposed ending the season on April 9. Then staff proposed April 15, but the FWC board in July approved making May 1 the end of season. The season previously ran from Oct. 15 through May 15.
The board also approved increasing the minimum claw size limit by 1/8 inch to 2 7/8 inches.
The new rules also include extending the post-season trap retrieval period from five days to 10 days, requiring a roughly 2-inch escape ring in all plastic and wood stone crab traps before the 2023-24 stone crab season begins and limiting space to store stone crabs on boats before claws can be removed to 24 cubic feet.
These are the first major changes in decades. Conch Key commercial fishermen Gary Nichols and Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Bill Kelly asked the FWC board to not implement all of the changes, only the escape ring and the limited storage space proposals at this time in order to determine if they are sufficiently effective at reducing crab mortality and reducing catch.
Commercial fishermen who spoke during the most recent FWC meeting when the rules were adopted said the changes would be another financial blow to their business following losses caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and this year’s coronavirus pandemic, which heavily impacted the restaurant industry.
Nichols calculates he will lose 25% of his medium-size claws, which are a bigger seller to people because they are not as expensive as jumbo and large-size claws, he said.
FWC staff say the changes are needed as the fishery has been undergoing over-harvesting since the 1990s and experienced a 22% decline in landings from its peak harvest. The national Seafood Watch program recently downgraded the stone crab fishery from “best choice” to “avoid” and asked retailers to stop carrying claws, FWC staff said.
Despite the changes, season is off to a good start in terms of production, local commercial fishermen said. Nichols pulled nearly 650 pounds on Thursday and more than 500 pounds on Friday, he said.