Commercial fishermen up and down the Keys are hoping for a third straight year of abundant catches and storm-free weather when the eight-month spiny lobster season opens Monday morning.
Fishermen began soaking traps at midnight Wednesday. Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association President Bill Kelly says reports have been positive thus far.
"Recon reports from the mini-season [July 25 and 26] and our guys out scoping is it looks like there's plentiful supply, he said. What we need is demand."
For the past two years, that demand has been from a robust live-lobster market in China, Taiwan and other Asian countries.
The 2009 season was a difficult one for the industry, with the U.S. and European markets suffering the recession and the Asian market yet to emerge.
Monroe County typically makes up around 90 percent of the state catch each year.
Keys fishermen collected 3.91 million pounds of spiny lobster in 2009, which was 92 percent of the 4.25-million-pound catch statewide. But the average price was just $3.12 per pound.
The catch was 5.21 million pounds in 2010 and 5.28 million pounds in 2011. The average price per pound spiked to $6.17 in 2010 and $6.67 in 2011.
Kelly says he'll stay away from speculating on what the price will be until the catch starts coming in and demand begins sorting itself out.
"I could speculate, but I won't. The market will tell us what the price is. We continue to see a demand from the Far East for live product. It's been a significant shift over the last few years. Live product delivers a higher price, typically as much as $3 per pound more," he said.
Stock Island Lobster Co. owner Peter Bacle says the Asian demand "is a little uncertain right now." He said prices should begin sorting out around Aug. 10.
"The Chinese have been driving the lobster market the last couple of years. My observation is they're not as aggressive right now as they were at this time the last two years," he said. "We're anticipating prices being down somewhat, but no one wants to commit on a price without product in hand."
Thursday, Conch Key fishermen Gary Nichols said he has around 2,200 traps in the water between two boats. He'll drop 6,000 total before Monday morning.
"The last two years were real good, thank God. The whole industry was in dire straits. If we can have three straight years with no bad weather," he said.
Jesus Cabrera captains the El Tiburon out of Marathon. He says he'll drop 2,500 traps during the five-day soak period and hopes to get as much as $8 per pound to start out.
"So far it looks good," he said. "I hope so; we need another good season."
My Toy Capt. Randolph Daniels says dive reports from the mini-season are encouraging. He'll drop 3,500 traps.
"It sounds good from what I hear. That could all change," he said. "It seems like we'll have a good price to start with."
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