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Soft-Shell Crab Industry Cushions Blow of Net Ban Amendment

Susan Grantham

Don Jackson (352) 392-1837
Leslie Sturmer (352) 486-5131

GAINESVILLE—Blue crab aficionados have something to smile about: In the wake of the 1995 net ban, soft-shell crab production is on the rise in Florida.

Last year’s Florida Department of Environmental Protection annual landings summary shows that soft-shell crab production has increased 20 percent from 1996 to almost 46,000 dozen soft-shell crabs being sold to wholesalers, retailers and restaurants. Meantime, the price per pound had remained stable or, in some cases, increased.

According to a Florida Sea Grant survey, at least 21,000 dozen crabs worth more than $500,000 were produced during the first half of 1998 by people new to soft-shell crab shedding.

Many of the new crabbers are fishermen who were almost put out of business by the 1995 net ban referendum. However, they learned how to replace some of their lost income by shedding and shipping the delectable crustaceans during a program sponsored by the Florida Sea Grant College Program at the University of Florida and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Don Jackson, coordinator for the Florida Sea Grant project, said the state’s commercial soft-shell crab industry has potential for even more growth. The water here warms up earlier than in the Chesapeake Bay area and other well known soft-shell crab locations. Florida crabbers can bring their soft-shell crabs to market as much as two to three months sooner than their Northern counterparts.

“Florida’s crabbers take the summer off when the rest of the states get into their soft-shell production,” said Paul Zajicek of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Florida farmers do the same thing — hit the market early. That’s when they get the best prices. The same holds true for Florida’s soft-shell crab industry.”

With the help of an Innovative Investment Program grant from the governor’s office, Florida Sea Grant produced a series of workshops throughout the state in 1997. Start-up kits were issued to fishermen directly affected by the net ban. Participants received information about designing a shedding operation, regulations, marketing and developing a seafood safety plan.

Fishermen who were eligible for the start-up kit must have fished or worked for a fishing outfit that had been put out of business by the net ban. They also must have held a saltwater products license and a restricted species designation. Jackson said mailings were sent out to everybody who had a restricted species license.

Most marine extension agents with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences knew who had been affected by the net ban in their areas. He said some fishermen had sold out and moved away after the amendment passed, but many still are trying to make a living from fishing.

“We weren’t in the soft-shell crab business before the 1995 net ban,” said Teddy Kight of Horseshoe Beach, who is participating in the Sea Grant project. “As a matter of fact, there were only seven or eight crabbers locally before the ban. Now there are about 35.”

He said the soft-shell crab is a high-demand item. Caught between molting cycles, these blue crabs shed their hard outer shell and have a paper-thin covering during what is known as the soft-shell stage. That’s when the crabs are easier to prepare and eat.

“Soft-shell crabbing is a hard business,” Kight said. “You can’t do it on your own. First you have to catch the peeler crabs. That’s what they’re called when they’re ready to bust out of their shells. But someone has to watch the crabs all the time because there is just a narrow window of time from when the crab sheds to the time it starts to get a hard shell again.”

“Crabbing didn’t replace all the money I earned from fishing,” said Kight. “The crab bait is real expensive, and it takes the whole family to make this work. It’s an alternative, though. My biggest fear is if I lose the power. Then my pumps and my coolers don’t work.”

Another participant in the Sea Grant project, David Capo of Cross City, said 30 percent of his business now comes from soft-shell crabs. “There’s enough of a demand that I can sell all my crabs locally,” he said.

Capo, who lives 20 miles inland, hauls some of the water he uses in his shedding operation from the coastal area where he gets his crabs. “I learned that water quality is critical,” he said. “It can make or break a successful shedding operation, and the situation must be monitored continuously. I check the water salinity where I catch the crabs and then check that my tanks are at the same level.”

Leslie Sturmer, UF Sea Grant extension agent for Levy County, said soft-shell crabbing is a good alternative for fishermen in Florida’s Big Bend area.

“The fishermen already knew a lot about where and how to get the peelers,” she said, “but they needed information on setting up the shedding tanks and filters, how to control water quality and marketing.”

“This was a model demonstration project,” Zajicek said. “We identified an impacted target audience and paired them up with an appropriate industry with room for growth. It is certainly possible at this point that soft-shell crabbing in Florida may just be poised to become a huge industry as other states look at quota limits for crabs.”