Veteran fisherman, Carlos Chan, is one of the few in Belize licensed to harvest stone crab claws. He has been in the fishing business for decades. He shares that stone crab has recently become popular in Belize. As such, he dedicates time to the stone crab besides the queen conch, lobster, and fish. Chan, who lives in the island of Caye Caulker off the northeastern Belizean coast, demonstrated the proper way of declawing the crabs and the importance of such a sustainable fishing practice.
Early in the morning, Chan and his helper load his little panga (boat) with the necessary tools to fish out the crab traps, storage vessels for the claws, water and some food. Afterward it was time to head out to his fishing grounds located around 30 minutes away southwest of Caye Caulker. Chan explained that each licensed crab fisher has designated fishing areas that are identified with themed buoys or sticks. These areas are important for each fisherman as they become very familiar with the area guaranteeing a successful catch every time they visit the area.
On this occasion, even though the day was a bit overcast, Chan captained the boat to his fishing area without any incidents. While approaching the fishing grounds, he pointed out the several sticks emerging from the water and marking his territory. His crab traps are around those sticks sticking out of the water. But how does he find them? “The traps are tethered to a small buoy via a rope. That’s how I find them,” he explained.
With the help of a long stick, he hooked one of the ropes’ loops floating and up came a small box with overgrown algae.
Chan and his helper started scrubbing off the algae and after opening the trap, voila! There were a few stone crabs inside. They had huge claws. He proceeded to measure the claws to make sure they are the correct size. If the claws are less than three inches in length, they cannot be harvested by law. The legal size as per law is three inches and above. Chan explained that anyone caught with claws not meeting the legal size will be served with a BZ$1,000 fine and/or six months in prison. This was corroborated by the Fisheries Department who added that licensed crab fishers will lose their license after a second offense.
As the fishing continued, the first crabs were placed inside a large wooden box. Most of the declawing takes place at the end of the fishing period. Before returning the trap to the water, Chan chopped some coconuts and placed them inside the trap to bait the crabs. The crab trap will remain in the water for about two weeks. However, if the demand is higher, Chan said they may pull them out of the water before that period.
In the following hours, Chan manoeuvred the boat in circles locating the traps and fetched them out of the water. Some traps had more crabs than others, while some boxes did not have any. Some traps made from wood even show signs that the crab had cut its way out. Chan had also come equipped with a hammer, boards, and nails to repair the damaged traps.
The fishing grounds are extensive and near midday, the fishing came to a pause as all the traps had been checked for crabs. Chan said it was time to remove the claws. He asked us to pay attention to the proper procedure.
“If you are not careful, the crab will be injured, and the claw may not grow back. The crab will not be able to defend or feed itself and it will die. So, it is important to remove the claw with care,” he said.
Chan stressed that only the claws are removed, the crab is released alive back to the water. In some cases, both claws may be removed if they meet the legal size. However, Chan recommends leaving one claw so the crustacean can fend for itself and scavenge for food.
The skillful fisherman avoids breaking off the joint connecting the claw with the body. This will lead to ripped muscle, bleeding and perhaps the claw may not grow back. Chan said the proper way is never to twist the claw. “Break the claw down with a sharp, and quick movement,” he said. Along with his worker they showed this technique with great skills removing the claws and releasing the crabs back to the water. According to him, the claw grows back in one molting period which is in about a year. To grow back to the legal size, it could be three molting periods or about three years. He added that younger crabs tend to grow their claws faster over the older ones.
Some of the traps had a few females with eggs. These were released immediately without their claws being removed.
Belize’s blue economy
The extended Caribbean coast of Belize has supported the livelihood of thousands. From the prehistoric times to the arrival of the first Europeans, particularly British settlers, the territory’s blue space (seas) has provided plenty of opportunities derived from marine products such as fish, lobster, conch, including shrimp and crabs.
The trading of those hydro-biological products has led to practices that have spanned up to today. That is why with the introduction of Belize’s Blue Economy Ministry in 2020, headed by Minister Andre Perez, the government has focused on strengthening sustainable sea-based economies across the extended Belizean Caribbean coast. This has been a complicated task as coastal developments continue to see detrimental activities such as dredging and the clearance of mangrove forests. One of those areas is San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye, where large tourism developments are threatening mangrove and seagrass ecosystems. The most recent developments have led to the death of mangroves due to dredging and the filling in of the lagoon area near the airport.
Perez has expressed that mangroves are highly important, especially for fisheries and other natural resources like the Mesoamerican reef. However, he believes that there should be a balance with conservation and development.
“The blue economy says that we need to develop our coast. Growing our economy, the Gross Domestic Product, is important, but there is something called balance which defines the blue economy. [For] any investments like the development of a resort that need mangroves to be cleared, the proper studies must be done,” Perez told the media.
Even though this crucial ecosystem vital for the blue economy continues to be threatened, Peres said that his Ministry remains committed to both the blue economy and tourism that provides jobs and foreign exchange earnings. As per the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, tourism is the number one foreign exchange earner for the country with a contribution of over BZ$540 million each year. While earnings from marine products such as lobster and conch, the Statistical Institute of Belize reported an increase from BZ$33.3 million in 2021 to BZ$36.4 million in 2022.
One of the plans to further bolster the sustainable use of the marine resources includes the creation of a development plan for deep sea fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone and with the goal to establish the Belize Sustainable Ocean Plan (BSOP). The BSOP campaign has been hosting community meetings across coastal communities engaging fisher-folks and other stakeholders to participate in the process aiming to bolster biodiversity protection. One of the most important topics is to collectively determine the type of developments suitable for these protected assets.
Minister Perez has also stated that while the current fisheries industry in Belize is primarily represented by the harvesting of lobster, conch and shrimp in nearshore marine waters, the Blue Economy Ministry continues to explore the possibility of diversifying fisheries through the sustainable use of marine species. One of those species that is further becoming commercialized, particularly within the tourism sector, is the Florida Stone Crab (Menippe mercenaria).
This sea crab, widely caught for food, is normally found in the western North Atlantic and its habitat includes the coasts of countries like Colombia, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, and parts of the United States like Texas. The species has a few predators, such as sea turtles, grouper and octopus. It lives in shallow waters, preferable sandy or muddy bottoms and seagrass beds.
According to research from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, stone crabs are known to feed on oysters, small mollusks, other crustaceans and even seagrass and carrion. Females reach sexual maturity at about two years of age. According to the commission, the spawning season lasts all spring and summer. Females can lay up to a million eggs. The crab molts two or more times per year when they are juveniles, in contrast to adults only molting once per year. They can regenerate lost claws or legs. This is what makes stone crab fishery unique as only the claws are harvested, and the animal is released alive.
Artisan fisherfolk engaged in this type of fishing say that this practice ensures ocean ecosystem health, supports their livelihoods, and drives economic growth. The value of the overall industry as per the Belize Fisheries Department (BFD), was around $125,000 for the local market. However, this number is expected to increase as exporting of stone crab claws will start to other markets in the United States and the Caribbean. The Department considers this fishery artisanal as they have a regulated number of licensed crab fishers registered. At this moment, even though there is no exact data on the population of the stone crabs in Belize, the BFD noted that there is no decline and no concerns yet regarding sustainability or overexploitation.
Capture Fisheries Unit Coordinator, Kenneth Esquivel explained their method to keep track of the crab’s stock. “We have management regulations serving as buffer zones and provide us with time to conduct a comprehensive assessment. So, in the upcoming season, we will have baseline data on which we can move on and determine the abundance of this marine species,” said Esquivel.
Delivering the product
With the fishing done, Chan returns home and weighs his catch of the day. Chan said on every fishing trip they catch around 300 crabs. The claws are sold by the pound. Among the different places purchasing claws include a few restaurants like Elvi’s Kitchen and Caramba in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, which pay BZ$25 per pound. Other clients include fishing cooperatives, who usually pay BZ$20 per pound. They work with designated crab fishers from whom they purchase the claws.
To get his claws to San Pedro, Chan delivers his order to the local water taxi company. In San Pedro, Chef Jennie Staines waits for the fresh product. She is not only a great cook specializing in preparing stone crab claws, but also a major advocate for sustainable fishing.
The boss of the kitchen at the iconic and well-known Elvi’s Kitchen restaurant says she only buys from fishermen like Carlos Chan. According to her, there are some fishermen who want to get into stone crab fishing and are not acquainted with the sustainable fishing method. This problem combined with the absence of other regulations like a season, was taking a toll on the production of stone crab claws. Chef Staines shared that she reached out to the Ministry of Blue Economy after it was established in 2020, urging its minister Andre Perez during a meeting at his office to take actions as this new marine product was about to be exploited. According to Staines, Perez told her he was going to look into the matter and prepared an informative campaign along with the Fisheries Department. Sometime after those conversations, the regulations and a season for the Florida Stone Crab was implemented.
A delicacy in Belizean eateries
The stone crab’s claws have become a delicacy in gourmet restaurants with demand growing in areas such as Ambergris Caye off the northeast coast of Belize. A plate containing 1 1/2lb of cooked stone crab claws can cost up to US$42.50. Most crab claw fanatics have shared that their favorite way to consume the claws is steamed with garlic butter sauce with either some greens or sautéed vegetables. In other restaurants on Ambergris Caye they prepared the claws in roasted garlic chipotle sauce. Stone crab claws are mainly consumed by tourists and a couple shared that the price was worth it, knowing the great effort fishermen undergo to get these delicacies to their plates.
Government gets involved and establishes stone crab season
After several consultations and discussions with fishers, a set of regulations regarding the harvesting of the Florida Stone Crab was introduced by the Belize Fisheries Department and Ministry of Blue Economy on August 16, 2022. This led to the establishment of a season for the Florida Stone Crab from October 1st through June 30th. To know more about this new regulation and the license application process click here.
According to Esquivel, the harvesting of stone crab in Belize is very minimal in comparison to lobster and queen conch.
He explained that there are records of stone crab fisheries from the 1980s, which up to today are stable. Esquivel said the production was between 12,000 and 24,000 pounds every year for the local market only. Although no decline in the crab’s population is suspected in Belize, Esquivel said that due to the fact the marine product started to be exported this year, a season was necessary. “That means that now the exploitation of the crab will increase due to the demand. So, now the crab fishers will need to satisfy the local demand and the export market. As such, we had to establish some sort of management measures,” Esquivel said.
"We then established a season after consultations with fishers and making studies about places with a similar stock. That place was in the Miami, Florida area, and based on their management criteria we implemented our seasons and regulations here in Belize.” He explained that in the past and due to the small size of these new fisheries, it was managed informally without any guidance. This led to the harvesting of the entire crab which led to its death. Today, with the regulations in place, only the claws can be harvested without killing the animal. Esquivel emphasized that the introduction of the season and regulations was not because of a decline in the stone crab population (although there are no official records of the stock), but because they are expecting a significant increase in fishing efforts, thus the need to set up those regulations in place until a proper and comprehensive stock assessment is done.
This new law to conserve and control the fishing of the Florida Stone Crab in Belize was welcomed by Staines and the current 16 licensed crab fishers in the country. Staines along with Chan and other fishers advised others in the industry to abide by this new law. They asked other fishermen to be responsible. “It will be a win-win situation for conservation and the economic aspect of the tourism and fishing industry in Belize,” Staines noted.
To further control this new marine product, the Fisheries Department is issuing licenses to harvest stone crab claws only to traditional crab fishers. The process requires applicants to pay a fee of BZ$100 for the license which is valid for one year. Other requirements that may be required include a valid fisherman’s license and being in possession of a licensed fishing vessel. The Fisheries Department indicates that any other information or documentation may be required to consider the application. The department will make further announcements in the future when non-traditional stone crab fishers can apply.
Belize Fisheries Department data on stone crabs
The Belize Fisheries Department shared that since a season was established, there is an allowable catch quota. According to information shared by Kenneth Esquivel, Capture Fisheries Unit Coordinator, the quota for the 2022-2023 is 20,000 lbs of crab claws. Esquivel explained that the fishing quota was divided between four producers, two of which are fishing cooperatives and the other two private companies. These include the Northern Fishermen Cooperative Society Ltd, National Fishermen Producers Cooperative Society Ltd, Feincatch Company Ltd and Rainforest Seafood Ltd, a company based out of Jamaica. The only company that is starting to export claws is Rainforest Seafood Ltd. The other companies, Belizeans, are focusing more on lobster and queen conch. A representative from the other organizations briefly stated that they see higher demands in lobster and conch.
Each of these entities get a total of 5,000 lbs fishing quota per season. The companies met their quota long before the 2022-2023 season closed. To continue receiving the product, an extension must be granted by the Fisheries Department. Failure to do so will result in a fine which is determined at the time of the offense by the Department’s administrator. The only cooperative that sought an extension this year was Rainforest Seafood Ltd. A representative shared that in contrast with the other fish companies, this was due to the high demand they experienced with stone crab claws.
What is being planned to safeguard the marine assets?
To help the fishing industry thrive in a manner that future generations will be able enjoy of the benefits the blue economy has to offer, fishers and fishers’ organizations are strongly encouraged to contact the national Fisheries Department at telephone number 224-4552 or by email at [email protected] to report any suspicious activities. The Department can also be contacted for any clarifications regarding the regulations as well. Esquivel at the fisheries department said that no one has been reported for violating the regulations. He explained that enforcement is very costly, and the department does not have sufficient resources. However, they have personnel at the different marine reserves and work along with rangers from those and other protected areas. “We also collect data from landing sites to ensure that those fishers delivering products have a license. We inspect the product and ensure that the crab claws measure more than three inches as per the regulation. That’s one way we monitor,” said Esquivel. He added that from time to time they do patrols and also rely on crab fishers, who protect the industry from any violators.
The Department advised that if a fisherman or consumer (restaurant) has crab product in large quantities and cannot get rid of it by the end of the grace period, after the season closes, they can contact the department to make further arrangements.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published on July 31, 2023 in The San Pedro Sun and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A stone crab / Credit: Dion Vansen.