Florida stone crab season starts today, October 15, with some changes in store when it comes to harvesting the crabs — and to Miami's favorite place to eat them.
The season brings a few new rules, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. For one thing, the end date has been set two weeks earlier, to May 1, 2020. Additionally, the minimum claw size has been increased from 2-3/4 inches to 2-7/8 inches.
Fishermen must also limit the use of checker boxes — the containers used to store live crabs before they're measured and their claws harvested — to two per boat. Each box must be at least two feet by two feet by two feet, for a total volume of 24 cubic feet. Looking ahead, before the start of the 2023 season fishermen must equip all plastic and wood traps with an escape ring measuring 2-3/16 inches.
In 2019, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which evaluates the ecological sustainability of wild-caught and farmed seafood commonly found in the U.S. marketplace, slapped Florida stone crabs with a red "Avoid" rating, which translates as "take a pass on these for now. These items are overfished or caught in ways that harm other marine life or the environment."
The rating was more about the harvesting process and its impact on bottlenose dolphins than on the abundance of crabs in the ocean.
Duarte says stone crabs are one of the most sustainable seafood that can be harvested.
"We don't kill the animals that we eat, and if they're too small, they're thrown back," he notes.
He adds that the coronavirus pandemic, though bad for humans, might have been good for stone crabs, in that it led to decreased demand for their claws during the last two months of the 2019-2020 season. Because of that, Duarte sees a strong stone crab season ahead.
"I think there will be a lot more volume of stone crabs — though because of the new claw-size limits, there might be less medium claws available," he says,
Amid the pandemic, Duarte also sees a stronger market for his business, which delivers stone crabs directly to homes and around the nation.
"We buy the freshest of the freshest stone crabs direct from the boats and sell them at 40 to 50 percent less than at restaurants," he notes.
Even at that price, Duarte admits, they represent a splurge.
"I think stone crabs aren't an everyday thing, but special times call for an iconic product," he reasons.
For those who simply must celebrate the onset of stone crab season at the most iconic of Miami Beach restaurants, Joe's Stone Crab (11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-0365; joesstonecrab.com) officially opens for the season today.
Owner Stephen Sawitz has been busy getting Joe's ready for the big day and has made some small but significant changes.
First and foremost, Joe’s has transformed its back parking lot into a 1,400-square-foot, 40-table backyard, complete with a new outdoor alleyway kitchen. This adds to the restaurant's capacity for outdoor seating and provides a second entrance to the restaurant.
Other safety features include UV light in the HVAC system to disinfect the air as it circulates through and impact-proof windows throughout the restaurant that can be opened to circulate more fresh air.
Staff members have their temperature checked before starting a shift and wear masks throughout the shift. An employee will stand by to open doors.
Sawitz says roughly half of the indoor tables have been removed in order to provide adequate social distancing. And new waiting areas have been created to accommodate long waits.
The biggest change may be the one to Joe's long-standing no-reservations policy: A limited number of reservations will be accepted nightly via the Resy app.
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"Joe’s has been through the Great Depression, the Great Recession, two World Wars, countless hurricanes, and any number of periods of civil unrest," Sawitz says. "Through all of that, Joe’s has remained an institution in Miami by constantly evolving. We never stay static. We always look to improve in the ways that are important to our guests, our staff, our fishermen, and our vendors."
Sawitz, who owns the highest-grossing independent restaurant in the United States, also wants to remind people who love stone crabs that Joe's isn't the only Miami-area restaurant that needs their love right now.
"Wouldn’t it be a great story if every restaurant in Miami had a wait this Friday night? The important thing we’d like to urge your readers to do is to go out to support their local businesses. Do we want them to come eat at Joe’s? The truth is that we want them to go out to eat — anywhere. Go support the local restaurants. Support the local hotels and motels and markets."
George Stone Crab. 1-888-720-1252; georgestonecrab.com. Delivery and mail order starts October 16.
Joe's Stone Crab. 11 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-0365; joesstonecrab.com. Lunch Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (Joe's Takeaway open for lunch Monday through Thursday.) Dinner Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. (Cocktails start at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.)