"All crabbers get bitten," says Dick McDaniel, who oversees crabs for Joe's. Florida stone crabs are found in southwestern Florida, down in the Keys and all along the Gulf of Mexico coast. When Joe Weiss first started serving them, they were plentiful in Miami, but the waters were dredged as Miami boomed in the 1920's and the stone crabs moved south.
Crab fishing requires back-breaking labor. Crabbers head out in boats well before dawn. Their boats are loaded with a thousand pounds of fresh fish heads for bait, because stone crabs are very particular. They can fish anywhere from a mile offshore to ninety miles out, where the water is ninety feet deep. You go to where the crabs are walking; you move your lines to where the activity is.
You try to time it so you get to the first trap, attached to a buoy, at first light. You pull the first trap, which is connected to the buoy by eighty or ninety feet of rope. You pull the buoy up to the boat and put it on a pulley that is connected to a motor; the pulley is doing the work. The trap is a square 16x16-inch box made of wood slats; as soon as the trap breaks the water, you pull it up and put it on the gunnel, or gunwale. The crabs get in by climbing up the side of the trap; they walk into a hole and drop down in. They can't swim-they only walk-so they can't get out. Each trap can hold ten or twelve crabs. Sometimes the trap is full; sometimes you get one or two, or none.




You take the trap up and take the crabs out. You've got to be fast. Compared to human reactions, crabs are slow, but you can still get bitten. So you reach in pull him out and put him in a crab crawl, a wooden pen on the boat that holds live crabs on wet burlap. The crabbers wear cotton gloves with plastic dots on them-up to three pairs at a time- and they go through dozens of pairs each week, protection against sharp barnacles as well as crabs.
The fish bones-which are also sharp-are then taken out of the trap and the trap is scrubbed. Now you've got to get fresh bait in the trap, close the lid, lock the locks, throw it overboard, and spool out the line ninety feet so the trap won't get tangled up and sink. You have to put them out in order along the line. So it's timing-you pull, throw, pull, throw, pull, throw. Your productivity is measured by your efficiency. There's no time to waste in between.
A good crabber can pull a thousand traps a day-by sundown. And this is backbreaking physical work. The traps weigh a ton, the men are getting soaking wet with saltwater, scraped by sharp barnacles, bounced around on the boat in rough water, and the captain is speeding up to get to the next trap.
Now, the boat steams toward home. And all the men start shucking crabs. They reach into the crawl, pull out a live crab, and break off one or two claws, whichever are legal size, and throw the crab body overboard. The claws go into boxes or bags, and the boat is hosed down for the next day.

 

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