Harvesting The Florida Stone Crab: Animal Cruelty or Ecological Ingenuity?

By: Michael Engle

"Sustainable seafood" generally refers to the ideals of respecting certain seasons, not taking too many fish out of the sea at one time, and/or determining minimum and maximum sizes of legal catch. Normally, when an animal is killed or fished, its culinary yield is limited to a resulting number of meat portions, plus a batch of stock made by boiling the leftover bones. What if, almost like a perennial flower, the same individual animal could be fished repeatedly for food? Not only does this concept exist in real life, but it is a culinary tradition in Miami Beach, FL.

The Florida stone crab is one of the most unique regional foods in the USA. Unlike the Delaware blue crab, there is almost no meat in the stone crabs' bodies. To compensate for their meatless bodies, the stone crabs' claws, which, in the wild, are strong enough to crush an oyster's shell, are prized as delicacies.  Stone crabs occasionally lose their limbs to predatory attacks; however, since their claws regenerate in a year's time, the crabs can survive with one or--theoretically--no remaining claws. The Florida stone crab is fished with a similar strategy, in order to mutually cater to the restaurants and the pool of wild crabs. Because these techniques closely resemble natural processes, it is questionable to suggest any animal cruelty in the harvesting of stone crab claws.

Crab claws are specifically amputated so that the diaphragm between the body and claw is left intact. If done properly, the crabs will lose a minimal amount of blood in the process, and the wound will heal quickly. Consequently, bad cuts will result in a greater loss of blood, and longer odds of survival. Single-amputee crabs have a 75% chance of survival, while double-amputees only have a 50% chance. Furthermore, if a crab survives the following year, its newly-matured claw will always be bigger than last year's claw.

Despite the unique nature of stone crab claw harvesting, there are still plenty of standards in place. By law, crab claws must measure 2.75 inches (70 mm), from the tip of the claw to the first joint, for the crab to be considered mature enough to be fished. In addition, there is an annual moratorium on stone crab fishing, from May 15 to October 15. Aside from these rules, it is proper technique to cook the claws briefly, and immediately upon collection. Once pre-cooked, the claws may be chilled before reheating for service. This allows the crabmeat to remain tender, while preventing it from sticking to the shell.

One of the oldest, and most famous, stone crab establishments is Miami's Joe's Stone Crabs. In addition to its key lime pies, Joe's ships its crab claws worldwide, so you don't have to travel to Florida in order to try them. But the question remains: would you eat Florida Stone Crabs knowing the harvesting techniques behind them?

What do you think? Is Florida Stone Crab harvesting animal cruelty or just a technique resembling a natural process?

Photo: Andrea Westmoreland

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