Autumn marks the end of the summer seafood season and we must say farewell to such favorites as Alaskan halibut, wild salmon and softshell blue crabs. But the cooler weather DOES offer compensation with the return of Florida stone crab season. Beginning October 15, the delicious stone crab claw season opens to remind us of the changing seasons.

The Florida stone crab, Menippe mercenaria, is found in coastal waters of the western Atlantic, and in greatest abundance along southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. It prefers mud or sandy bottoms where the adults conceal themselves from predators by burrowing into the soft bottom. They feed on oysters, other crustaceans, mollusks and polychaete worms, vegetable matter and (occasionally) carrion. Stone crabs are vulnerable to horse conch, grouper, cobia, sea turtles and octopus, as well as eager fishermen.

Stone crab are only 5" - 6" across from tip to tip, but they possess disproportionately large claws (chelae). Even though they are not much larger than a 'whale' sized blue crab, they are deeper bodied, and look far more formidable. They are usually brownish or brownish red in color and their large claws are black tipped. The claws are asymmetrical, with one being larger (the crusher claw) and one smaller (the pincer claw). The claws are used primarily for defense and are not essential for the crab's survival.

Stone crab can live up to eight years, and in that time will go through many molts. Their spawning season goes from spring through summer, but the male must wait for the female to shed her exoskeleton before mating. A true gentleman, the male stone crab will remain with the female after mating to offer her protection until her shell firms up. Stone crab females will spawn between four and six times and lay between 500,000 to 1,000,000 eggs per season.

It is those claws, and the succulent meat they contain, that makes the stone crab such a prized catch. Female stone crabs are larger than males, but the males have the larger claws. Stone crabs have an interesting defense mechanism, but one that certainly aids their survival. When threatened by a predator, stone crabs can actually lose the limb by which they are grabbed. Although such a loss would probably spell the death of a higher life form, the stone crab simply grows a new limb. This process takes about a year.

Fishing for stone crab is done by laying baited traps, called 'pots' which the crabs simply crawl into in search of food. The traps can be made of wire, wood or plastic and are anchored to the bottom and tethered to a floating buoy. When harvesting, the crusher claw is removed at the first knuckle and the live crab is returned to the ocean. Although the crab can live with both claws removed, mortality is increased and this practice is frowned upon by responsible fishermen. Although the crab will re-grow its missing claw, it will not grow back to the same size as its original. Crabs that are harvested more than once are known as 'retreads'. It is estimated that a full 13% of all harvested claws are 'retreads'.

When handling a stone crab, a healthy respect must be paid to those claws. Consider that the favorite prey of the stone crab is the oyster, whose shell it crushes with seemingly little effort. In fact, those crusher claws can generate a force of 19,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Imagine what that would do to a human finger!

Fishermen weigh their day's catch and the claws are immediately cooked, then chilled and shipped. If stone crabs claws are frozen without cooking, the meat tends to stick to the shells.

Because stone crab are not killed when harvesting their claws, and because the Florida stone crab fishery has been managed in a sustainable fashion, they are considered a Best Choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a product recommended for consumption.

Florida stone crab is delicious, and is a good low-fat choice for protein. They are high in selenium, vitamin B-6 and magnesium. Enjoy this tasty, healthy and guilt free seafood while you can. Because even though the season is just beginning, it won't be long before we're awaiting the re-birth of spring and the return of our summer favorites.

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