A Goodland-based organization is serving as a vital centralized communications channel between the state’s $30 million stone crab industry and the state agency that governs it.
The Florida Stone Crabbers Association was formed in late May on the heels of misinformation circulating about the status of proposed new rules for stone crab fisheries being considered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. A local media outlet had reported that the FWC had approved the regulations, according to Kelly Kirk, who is one of the FLSCA’s three co-founders. In truth, the agency isn’t slated to render a final decision until its July meeting,
“When we first heard about them, we all kind of scrambled because we didn’t know what to expect,” explained Kirk. “We weren’t fully versed in what was coming. It almost felt like being blindsided because there was a lack of communication from the state with our industry. A lot of members thought it was a done deal and they couldn’t voice their opinion. They didn’t know what was going on. So, we wanted to form the FLSCA simply as an avenue of communication for industry members and the state and consumers and everyone.”
Commercial fish houses, processors, retailers, restaurants and even consumers all fall within the organization’s umbrella.
The FLSCA keeps its members abreast of important information from the FWC and its Division of Marine Fisheries Management. The nonprofit organization also serves as a centralized point of contact for members so that their opinions and experiences can be provided to commissioners and agency biologists to factor into their research and rulings.
The co-founders are all heavily involved in the stone crab industry’s commercial side.
“We kind of come from diverse backgrounds, but we’re all in the industry, we’re all invested in it,” explained Kirk. “All of our paychecks are based on the crab industry so we’re in it for the long haul, we like to say.”
Kirk’s family owns Kirk Fish Company in Goodland. Her father, Damas, is a commercial stone crab fisherman and the Naples resident has served on the FWC’s Stone Crab Advisory Panel for 7 years. She’s slated to take over operation of the family’s processing facility.
She is joined by Carrie Doxsee of Marco Island, whose husband, Daniel, is a Kirk Fish Company crabber. Doxsee uses her strong background in science to decode biological information from the state and to answer member questions. Completing the trio is Holly Levingston-Dudley of Everglades City, who is the daughter and wife of full-time commercial crabbers.
“She grew up in the industry and has spent quite a bit of time actually on the boats, so she sees the financial side, the processing side and she actually has experience with the crabs; handling crabs, pulling traps,” Kirk said of Levingston-Dudley.
Doxsee said the nonprofit officially formed on May 26. Dudley said the FLSCA has more than 1,000 FLSCA members, including many of Florida’s more than 950 licensed commercial stone crabbers and people who’ve joined via the organization’s Facebook page.
Input from the industry, as well as consumers, is something the FWC has sought as it prepares to render decisions on the proposed new rules. According to Doxsee, Kirk and Dudley regarding past FWC decisions—such as the net ban in the 1990s—has left the industry members feeling their viewpoints weren’t being taken into consideration by the agency. However, Kirk also said that the agency has been receptive to the FLSCA and the role it’s playing because the commissioners “want a more direct line of communication with the fishermen.”
Due to the Coronavirus, the FWC held virtual workshops on the proposed rules on June 16 and 18 and comments can be logged on the agency’s website.
The commission did approve a draft of the rule changes for the recreational and commercial stone crab fishing in May, while also directing its staff to continue working with the fishery and to evaluating potential options. Under consideration are:
- Moving the stone crab season’s end from May 15 to April 9.
- Extending the post-season, trap retrieval period from five days ten days after the season ends.
- Requiring a 2 3/16-inch diameter escape ring in all plastic and wood stone crab traps by the 2023-2024 season to allow small crabs escape.
- Increasing the minimum claw size from 2 ¾ inches to 2 ⅞ inches.
- Limiting the possession of whole stone crabs on the water to two checker boxes, each up to 3 feet by 2 feet, or 12 cubic feet.
The Commission could make a final decision on management changes for this fishery at the July 2020 FWC meeting. View background documents and the May 2020 presentation on this topic.
Stone crabs are harvested along Florida’s west coast, from the Panhandle southward to the Keys and the state’s southern peninsula, then north along the East Coast to the Jupiter area. Roughly 20% are harvested in Collier County annually.
The FLSCA’s goal is to preserve both the stone crab population and its fishery through accurate data and analysis of all industry variables, along with effective communication between stockholders and state.
“Conserving the resource is of primary importance to the fishermen and the entire industry,” said Doxsee. “I think it’s important for everyone to understand; the public, the commissioners, the FWC, if it’s thought that the crabbers do not want to protect this species more than the FWC does those people are greatly mistaken,” she explained.
“For many of these stone-crabbers, this is all that they know, and their families have been doing this for generations. The state would be grossly negligent in its ideals to assume that the FWC has a greater interest in the growth and safe harvesting of stone crabs than the men and women who depend on this industry to feed their families.”
For more information about the Florida Stone Crabbers Association or to join the mailing list, visit www.facebook.com/floridastonecrabbersassociation or send an email to Floridastonecrabbers@gmail.com. For more information about the proposed rule changes to comment on them, visit myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/stone-crab.