Crabbing in the Florida Keys

This is a quick post about experience (or nightmare) crabbing in the Florida Keys. I provide details and photos purely for curiosity purposes. To be semi-enslaved on a commercial crabbing boat in the Florida Keys is a far cry from my idea of adventure in the keys. It happened by chance and perhaps more appropriately out of bad luck. This is a an adventure to avoid.

This is an Moderate ActivityLet me back-peddle to set the stage. I literally peddled into this mess. I had just cycled from St Petersburg to Key West, Florida and was spending a few days partying and seeing the sights. One of those sites was the the commercial port of Key West (which no tourist ever visits). While there I got into a conversation with a salty sea dog who called himself the ‘Wolf’. That should have been my first indication of issues.

He tried to enlist me in his crew aboard the commercial fishing vessel called the Stephanie Vaughn. When I hear the term fishing Jimmy John Shark is what I get reminded. What kind of fishing I asked? “Golden Crabs”, he replied. Commercial crabbing in the keys was a new concept to me. “What’s a Golden Crab?”, I asked. A very profitable crab that is sold exclusively to the west coast of the USA. He explained that there were only two licensed commercial boats in the keys that fished these crabs. Why? Because they are scarce, found at depths of 400 fathoms (730m or 2400 feet). Plus the traditional methods used in Alaska won’t work in the Florida Keys he explained. In Alaska they attach floating transmitters to the stringers (a line of large traps) so that they can return and harvest the traps weekly. The floating transmitters don’t float in the Keys due to the fast Gulf Stream currents. “So how do you find your stringers?”, I asked. “It’s a secret.”, he replied.

I was interested, but not interested enough to be crew on a boat in the keys for over a week. Then he told me meals and lodging are included and at the end of the trip each crew member shared equally in the profits. “What about loses?”, I asked. His response was enthusiastic, ” Golden Crabs are like gold, we never lose money on a trip.”

“What about my bicycle?”, I asked. You can tie it to the front rail. Reluctantly I agreed.

Turned out his boat was a rust bucket. The only boat in the area more rusted was the other commercially licensed Golden Crab fishing boat. I had doubts about the gold value of the Golden Crabs but was left with no time for regrets. I was put to work immediately. It seemed we had a lot to do before casting off.

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The task of dropping stringers was dangerous and took place at all hours. We were on a 7×24 schedule.

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If dropping stringers seemed chaotic it was nothing compared to locating stringers dropped previously and retrieving them. The method was to return to the general area of prior drop-off using the LORAN (a very inaccurate navigation system). Then cruise back and forth dragging a weighted hook along the seafloor until it snags the trap stringer (or any other potentially dangerous large object).

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Once a stringer was located it needed to be hauled to the surface and the crabs pulled out and stored on ice. All in a timely fashion since one cage after another came smashing on deck. It was dangerous and dirty work. Especially after a few dog watches (4 hours before dawn).

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And lest we forget that we are hauling on tones of gear that is submerged deep, the boat is bouncing around like a top, and the crew are inexperienced and crazy. So things will break. And often and dangerously. Cables shearing, winches snapping and booms splitting. So the show must go on. Repairs are made at sea. Sometimes with volunteers and sometimes via coercion.

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And it’s not all work and no play on the SS Minnow. The goofy crew all become a bit muddled after days of work and watches.

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And after a week of 24×7 stress, dog watches, poor food, filthy accommodation, no showers and a crazy captain, I had had enough.

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When we finally docked, I untied my bicycle, hopped on and immediately began to ride away. The captain saw me and yelled, “what about your share of the profits?” I knew he was angling to get more work out of me. I had no intention of sticking around to unload, repair and clean the boat. I yelled over my shoulder, “give my share to the crew!”

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Stephanie Vaughn Commercial Crabbing, December, 2001

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