Floridians always look forward to stone crab, the sustainable fishing season that starts on October 15. Though 2020 continues to be a challenging year, it’s possible that stone crabs have survived it better than we have. It almost seems a shame to eat them – but alas, they are delicious.
Twenty-eight years later, the phone still rings off the hook during stone crab season at PJ’s Oyster Bar on St. Pete Beach. Stone crabs are so popular our local restaurants often run out of them. The only way to know for sure if a place is still serving stone crabs that day is to dial them up and ask.
“It gets old after a while, but I would never shun it,” says PJ’s owner Kelli Umstead. “I’ll put it on our Facebook page – ‘Fresh stone crabs in today.’ When we get to the point where we start running low, I always say, ‘Call before you come in if you’re coming in for stone crabs.’ I really don’t mind the phone calls. It’s still kind of exciting. I’m like, ‘Wow, people are still interested in us. They still like us.’ Like Sally Field, ‘You love me. You really love me.’ But they love the stone crabs. They don’t love me.”
Umstead expects demand to exceed supply once again this year. And with new state regulations now in place to curb overfishing, the celebrated claws might be in shorter supply than usual.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced the new regulations earlier this month. Minimum claw size has increased by 1/8 inch; there are new limits on the number and size of the checker boxes that hold crabs onboard while they await measurement; and the season’s been cut two weeks short, now ending May 2.
The biggest change for local restaurants is not with the crabs themselves, but rather in how they’ll be safely delivered to the public. Don’t expect any block parties this year.
PJ’s is still running at only 50% capacity, so make reservations. They do have outdoor seating and require masks. They’ve caught some flak over this, but the overwhelming majority of their customers support the decision, judging from Facebook comments.
As for the person who commented, “I will not spend my hard-earned money anywhere that treats me like a diseased leper,” well, it’s America and you’re free to spend your money wherever you like. Just remember that restaurant staff wears masks to protect you, the customer.
Umstead assures us it’s neither a fashion nor a political statement.
“Everything’s politicized these days and it’s crazy,” says Umstead. “I’m ready for a little bit of normal from somewhere.”
For the most part, restaurants will serve stone crab claws the same as always: hot with drawn butter or cold with mustard sauce.
Will this be a good year for stone crab claws? We don’t know. It’s still 2020. Anything could happen.
Can’t get enough stone crab? Look for more stone crab content in the coming issues of the Gabber.