Stone Crabs Offer Second Chance For Keys Commercial Fishing Industry

Oct 15, 2017

Tourism has been the focus of a lot of attention — and $1 million in emergency advertising — in the Florida Keys since Hurricane Irma.

But the Keys have another major industry. The island chain makes up the most valuable commercial fishery in Florida — and ranks 10th in the nation, up there with ports in New England, Alaska and Louisiana.

At Keys Fisheries in Marathon, Gary Graves was getting ready for big crowds as the opening of stone crab season approached.

Stone crab is a favorite Florida delicacy.
Credit FWC

"People know stone crab season like football season," he said. "Hey, Oct. 15th — it's stone crab season."

A few days before the season opened, Daniel Padron was working on stone crab traps at a marina on Stock Island. 

"We've got some traps in the water, trying to get the last couple ready to go," he said. "Been backed up because of Irma."

Last year, the stone crab catch in Florida was estimated at $31 million. How a Category 4 hurricane will affect this year's catch remains unknown.

"Only one way to find out," Padron said. "Throw them [traps] in the water and wait till you pull them out."

This year's stone crab harvest is especially important. Spiny lobster is the most valuable fishery in the Keys — and that took the hardest hit because lobster season starts in August. Lobster traps were already in the water when Irma blew through. And most of the lobster is caught early in the season, so fishermen lost their gear — and prime fishing time.

But a lot of lobster fishermen also fish for stone crab.

"It gives them another fishery that they can really pound down and hopefully, it's a good season," Graves said.

Keys Fisheries, where Graves is vice president, is a fish house, retail store, marina and restaurant. More than 100 people work there, not counting the crews on the boats.

Keys Fisheries holds an annual stone crab claw eating contest. This year's is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 21.
Credit Andy Newman / The Florida Keys & Key West

Bill Kelly of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association said initial estimates are of a 43 percent loss of lobster traps in the Keys from Irma — or 150,000 traps. Fishermen are still retrieving those they can find, fixing them if they can and building new ones.

"A few of the boats will continue to try and lobster fish a little bit," Graves said. "But they'll all concentrate very heavily on stone crabs."

At stake is the survival of the second-biggest industry in the Keys. The value of fish brought to shore in the Keys last year was $150 million. Kelly says 4,500 people work in commercial fishing.

"That doesn't count an employee of a fish house or a restaurant that's affiliated with seafood," he said. "That's strictly on the water, boat-related."

A lot of the commercial fishing industry is multi-generational. Like Dylan Stafford, who says he started going out fishing with his parents' boats when he was 6 months old and never wanted to do anything else.

Dylan Stafford says he started working on his parents' boats when he was 6 months old and has never wanted to do anything else, despite losing hundreds of lobster traps — and his home — to Hurricane Irma.
Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN

Now he's captain of one of the family vessels, the Key Limey, working out of Stock Island.

He started as a mate "right out of high school. I had no desire to go to college, just wanted to start doing it. It's not an easy way to make a living — it's really, really physically demanding work. But I love doing it," he said. 

Stafford said his family lost between 300 and 400 lobster traps during Hurricane Irma. The hurricane also destroyed his home, a trailer in the Lower Keys. He and his wife are living with his parents for now. But he's still positive this is the right work for him.

"You see all kinds of turtles every day, porpoises every day," he said. "It's peaceful to be on the ocean."

The Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association is trying to help lobster fishermen recover their gear and salvage the season. People who find gear or see it out on the water are encouraged to report it on the group's website

In recent years, spiny lobster caught off the Keys has become a valuable delicacy in the Asian market, pushing up prices. Stone crab is a smaller market, with a closer clientele.

"It's Florida's crème de la crème, as far as I'm concerned," Graves said.

He said he was expecting Keys Fisheries to be packed for the opening of season — and was looking forward to the annual Stone Crab Eating Contest, in which contestants are timed on how fast they can crack and consume 25 claws. That event is scheduled for noon on Saturday, Oct. 21.