While I try hard to keep track of the more than 500 marine fish and invertebrates the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) manages, I sometimes field calls about things I don’t deal with on a daily basis. Like when an angler wants to know about using barnacles as bait (yes, you can). Or most recently when a reporter wanted to know more about blue land crabs. Specifically, can she move them from behind her car when trying to leave for the day?
Blue crabs, I asked?
“No. Blue land crabs,” she replied.
Ah, yes. I’ve heard of these blue land crabs. While they are a commonly targeted species in south Florida, it is a rare day that I get a media call on the crabs.
I’m not from south Florida. And while I’ve caught, eaten, been pinched by, and dissected more than my fair share of blue crabs, I’ve never even seen a blue land crab, other than in pictures.
I quickly extended a call to co-worker Mason Smith, a south Florida resident and regional biologist, to learn more about Florida’s largest semi-terrestrial crab.
Tell me more about blue land crabs.
They remind me a lot of ghost crabs on the beach – very fast and shy – but much larger. During the day, they stay just inches from their burrow (which may be more than 6 feet deep), and scurry into it when the slightest movement is detected. To catch one, you simply have to get close to the opening, and then stand very still for about five minutes until the crab starts coming out of its burrow again, and then jump down and grab it with your hand (a dip net would also work).
What was your first experience with a blue land crab?
It was the day I toured an apartment complex in North Palm Beach. That complex has an amazing amount of black and red mangrove throughout the property. Underneath the mangrove trees were dozens of the large blue land crabs, each about 6 inches wide across the body, with massive burrows. Blue land crabs are rarely found more than 5 miles from the ocean, but they can also inhabit open fields of tall grass or open hardwood groves.
What did you think about them?
I thought they were very cool, and immediately wondered if they were as edible as their more aquatic cousins. They are, by the way!
Tell me what it is like living in an area with blue land crabs.
It turns out they are a small tourist attraction – everyone stopped to look and show their kids on the way to the mailbox or front office. My son would always demand that we stop to see them on the way to the pool. The mangrove stands were actually divided from the roads by a concrete wall, so there were never any issues with them getting run over by cars. Depending on where they live, others in south Florida are not so lucky, and may experience damage to their backyards and gardens from these crabs.
Are these important in south Florida? Why?
Yes, they are very important for the south Florida ecosystem and to the southern areas of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. They consume mostly vegetation, especially the leaves of mangroves, and so are very important for nutrient-cycling for a healthy coastal shoreline. They also provide an excellent food source for a wide variety of predators. As adults, they provide food for many terrestrial animals – raccoons, foxes, large birds, etc. Although they live on land, the females walk down to the water to release the eggs, where the larvae will hatch and float out to sea on an outgoing tide for several weeks before riding the tide back in as small juveniles. Many fish and other aquatic wildlife eat the eggs, larvae and small crabs during that time.
What do people do with them?
Throughout the broader Caribbean, they are eaten as a food source. This is less common here, but I have read about people in Florida harvesting them for food. (According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension office website, the meat is reported to be sweet and white.)
So back to the reporter’s question, can you move them?
Yes, you can move them from behind your car or even shoo them away (though they tend to move out of the way pretty fast, some do get smashed), so long as you are not relocating them to another area. Relocating the crabs entirely, though not suggested, would be the same as harvesting them and would require the proper licenses (recreational or commercial) unless exempt. They are subject to a closed season from July 1 through Oct. 31 (during spawning) and a recreational bag limit of 20 per person, per day other times. Trapping is prohibited (though you can take them by hand or with a dip net). The harvest of egg-bearing females is also prohibited, and blue land crabs cannot be taken from state parks or from the right-of-way of federal-, state- or county-maintained roads.
These regulations were implemented in 2003, after anecdotal information suggested the species may have been in decline. Puerto Rico adopted similar management measures around the same time.
Interested in learning more? Visit MyFWC.com/Fishing and click on “Saltwater,” “Recreational Regulations” and “Blue Land Crabs.”