Narrator:Stone crab claws are one of the priciest seafoods you can buy. And depending on their size, a pound of claws at a restaurant can cost as much as $70. But catching these crabs is hard work. Strangely enough, fishers can only harvest the claws from the crabs, while the bodies must be returned to the ocean. So, what makes these claws so coveted? And why are they so expensive?
You can only fish for stone crab on the southeastern coast of the US, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Mexico. And it's Florida where more stone crabs are caught than anywhere else. These crustaceans are markedly more expensive than other popular crabs. A pound of claws can cost two times the price of Alaskan snow crab legs. Part of what makes these crabs so costly is the labor-intensive process of catching them.
Ernie Piton:There's a nice crab.
Narrator:Ernie Piton Jr. has been commercially fishing for stone crabs for over 40 years. With limited time to harvest each year, his crew must start their days early, sailing out before the sun rises. The process begins with dropping traps down to the ocean floor.
Kevin Henry:This is probably the funnest part, you know? You get to be a little more physical, you know what I mean? It's a little bit of a rhythm thing going on here. It's like dancing mariachi.
Narrator:But plucking these claws can be a dangerous process.
Bill Kelly:The claws on an adult crab can have as much as 9,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. With the enormous pressure that's exerted, they could actually pop a finger off at the joint.
Kevin:These crabs, they have a mind of their own. You can easily get bit, you know, if you're not careful. I've only been bit maybe, say, eight times in my career. Popped over a million claws in my day.
Narrator:The crew leaves the traps in the water for about two weeks before they're pulled in by a rope. Then each one must be sorted thoroughly.
Kevin:We come back in a couple weeks, and then got a couple in the trap, we're gonna pull them out. We're gonna pop their claws and hope for a good day.
Narrator:Crews break off the claws quickly, so they don't keep the crabs out of water for too long. But even if a trap is full of crabs, Kevin can't necessarily take every claw. The state requires all harvested claws to be at least 2 7/8 inches long. Crabbers can legally break off both claws if they meet the required size.
Ernie:The ones that look smaller, we measure them on the gauge. Like that one.
Narrator:Crabs are one of few animals that can regenerate. When a crab loses a claw -- or two -- it can grow each one back in time. On average, claws can take up to three years to grow large enough to harvest again, which is why the state requires that crabbers pay close attention to each claw's size. This ensures fishers don't remove one prematurely. But despite the claws' ability to regrow, some researchers have questioned the sustainability of this system.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found that 46% to 82% of crabs died from the loss of two claws, while 23% to 59% died from the removal of one. That's compared to just 12.8% of crabs that died when no claws were removed. Crabs can also only regrow a claw if the joint that linked it is left intact. Otherwise, it'll bleed to death. This makes the way these claws are broken all the more important for preserving the fishery's future.
Hiring enough people to make the operation run smoothly is another reason for the high price of these claws. And then there's one other cost you'd never expect. Each trip requires 900 pounds of pig's feet for bait. And that's just about half of the total cost of fishing for the day.
Ernie:Normal running cost to go stone crabbing today is about $1,100 to leave the dock. Bait prices have gone up, fuel prices have gone up. You know, the track tag prices have gone up.
Narrator:After 10 hours on the boat, Ernie's crew must boil and ice their catch as soon as they return, otherwise the claws won't stay fresh. They finish the day by weighing each claw, which ultimately sets the final value. Claws are sold in four sizes. At Billy's Stone Crab, restaurant prices range from $35 to $70 per pound.
Brian Hershey:We run about 4,000 pounds of stone crab through the restaurant each week. On a busy weekend, we sell 700 to 800 pounds of stone crab.
Narrator:The most expensive order costs $140. The plate is made up of four 7-ounce colossal claws, which yields just under 1 pound of crabmeat. Fresh-cooked claws sold on ice are less expensive, but even then, the mediums will cost you $29 per pound.
Years ago, stone crabs weren't such valuable food. In the 1890s, they were nothing more than bycatch in spiny-lobster traps. Fishers began to keep the crabs that fell into those traps, and by the late 20th century, the stone crab fishery had become one of the most valuable industries in Florida. Today, it's worth $30 million, and the prices of these claws aren't likely to drop anytime soon.
Data from the FWC show the number of crabs caught each year has declined by 712,000 pounds. That's since peak harvest in the late 1990s. Many commercial harvesters have also started fishing farther offshore, pointing to a lesser number of crabs in the area. The FWC says both of these changes signify a threat of overfishing, and prices have gone up in order to keep the fishery profitable.
To further protect the species' future, the FWC instated even stricter regulations last year. Two changes include an increase in the minimum size of harvestable claws and cutting the fishing season short by two weeks. These limitations aren't likely to lower the cost of stone crab claws. But the goal is to help preserve them and keep Florida fishers busy for years to come.
Kevin:One crab, I remember, my favorite crab I ever saw, it looked like a Louis Vuitton pattern. Bunch of diamonds. And it was just a pretty thing.