With claws powerful enough to crush oyster shells, you can only imagine what a stone crab could do to a finger. To catch them, you need a good deal of courage and strong hands. If you buy them, you only have to worry about your wallet getting pinched–they often fetch more than 50 dollars per pound. But no matter how you get your hands on them, stone crab claws are the sweetest, most delectable meat you’ll ever taste.
My family gathers for the opening of stone crab season each year. We spend long days in the sun trying to catch our limit. As the sun goes down we clean up the boat, then head to the kitchen to cook the day’s catch. We spend evenings on the porch eating claws, drinking rum, and telling stories about monster stone crabs and other wild things we saw underwater that day. Then we get up the next morning, slather on more sunscreen, and do it all over again.
Stone crabs are uniquely sustainable seafood because only the claws are harvested; the live crab goes back in the water. The ability to release their claws is a natural defense mechanism that helps them escape predators like grouper, octopus, and sea turtles. Crabs can regenerate their claws up to four times. Even though stone crab is a naturally resilient fishery, demand has skyrocketed. To rebuild stock and protect this incredible resource, last year Florida officials adopted new rules, shortening the season, increasing the minimum claw size you can catch, and restricting the harvest. Egg-bearing females are still off limits.
If you’re ready to catch your own claws, you’ve got two options. The most common way is to set your own traps. (This is also strictly regulated; check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s website for more details.) The traps have to be baited — and the stinkier the bait, the better. Fish heads are a popular choice. You’ll need to check the traps every few days, but trapping the crabs is only half the battle!
Once you pull the trap onto the boat, you have to grab each crab and coax it into giving up a claw. A stone crab looks like a bouncer, with pumped-up, oversized claws folded out in front of its body and little eyes peering out above them. You’ll notice the two claws look different. One is a crusher claw, usually the larger of the two and often on the right side. That’s the one that can inflict 19,000 pounds of pressure per inch, about four times more than a crocodile. The other, more tapered claw is the pincer claw, which they use to cut and tear. If you notice an unbroken fingerprint just below the bottom pincer, that’s the mark of an original claw that has never been regenerated.
To handle stone crabs, wear sturdy protective gloves. To properly declaw them, hold them at the base of each claw where it meets the carapace. The key is to apply firm pressure at just the right spot, which triggers them to release the claw. While you can legally take both claws, it’s rare to find a crab with two of legal size, and leaving a claw lets the grab defend itself from predators.
You can also dive for stone crabs, using snorkel or scuba gear. If you like a thrill and don’t mind sticking your arm in a hole in the sea floor, this might be for you. Stone crabs are harder to spot than spiny lobster. There are no tell-tale antennae hanging out of their burrows. After a while you develop an eye for what the holes look like, but then you’ve got to be sure it’s a stone crab living in there. We’ve seen moray eels and other wild creatures inside holes, so definitely take a look before you reach inside.
I look forward to our stone crab claw feast all year. There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting down to a meal we caught and cooked for ourselves. We give thanks for family and friends, the great state of Florida, and this delicious meal. As I look around the table, there’s always more than one black-and-blue fingers, but so far, all digits are accounted for.
Stone Crab Bisque
- dutch oven
- fine mesh strainer
- Stone crab stock ingredients:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 cups stone crab claw shells
- 1 cup sherry
- 6 cups water reserved from boiling stone crab claws
- Bisque ingredients:
- 5 cups stone crab stock or seafood stock or clam juice
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 large onion diced
- 4 stalks celery diced
- 2 carrots diced
- ½ cup flour
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Sea salt to taste
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Pinch of cayenne to taste
- Squeeze of lemon to taste
- 1 to 2 cups stone crab claw meat
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- Lemon wedge
- Stone crab stock instructions: Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high. Add the stone crab claw shells and sauté for a few minutes. Splash them with sherry and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the reserved water from boiling the crab claws, or seafood stock or clam juice. Simmer for 30–45 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced to about 5 cups.
- Bisque instructions: Melt the butter in a Dutch oven over medium. Add the onion, celery, and carrots. Sauté for a few minutes, reducing the heat as necessary so the vegetables soften but don’t brown. Sprinkle with flour and stir very well. Once the flour is incorporated, strain the stone crab stock into Dutch oven. Bring it to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Stir in tomato paste. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Slowly stir in the heavy cream and allow it to simmer for another 20 minutes, or until thickened. Strain the bisque through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium container, pressing on the solids with the back of a ladle to extract all liquid. Wash and dry the now-empty Dutch oven. Return the strained bisque to the Dutch oven and stir in the lemon juice and cayenne. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. When piping hot, pour into bowls and top with reserved stone crab claw meat and a sprinkle of parsley.