KEY LARGO -- With the sun beating down at high noon, Capt. John Greco and his two-man crew baited 100 spiny lobster traps with smelly cowhide and then loaded them onto his 28-foot boat, Dirty Girl, for another journey out to sea.
The traps were dropped six to eight miles offshore in waters 5 to 200 feet deep, and attached to ropes with a string of pink buoys for identification.
Throughout the Florida Keys and at a few other locations in the state, the crews of hundreds of commercial boats dropped nearly a half million licensed traps into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico in preparation for the start of the 2013-14 season, which begins Tuesday.
The fishermen all hope for the same thing: no hurricanes, lots of lobsters and high prices.
“Going in, we’re always very optimistic,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “The larvae counts and juveniles we’ve seen indicate it’s going to be a good season. But we also had every indication it would be that way last year.”
It wasn’t. The Keys commercial fishermen caught just 3.7 million pounds last season, down from 5.4 million pounds in 2010-11 and 5.3 million pounds in 2011-12, according to data collected by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“We were impacted by a pretty extensive outbreak of red tide, and also what we call the PaV1 virus,” Kelly said. “It’s fatal in juvenile lobsters.”
Tropical Storm Isaac also played a part, hitting the Upper Keys hard just three weeks into the season. Thousands of traps were destroyed, including 500 belonging to Capt. Gary Nichols of Conch Key.
“When the storm came, it was the end of the lobsters in my opinion,” said Nichols, who has been trapping them for 40 years. “It displaced them.”
Monroe County accounts for about 90 percent of the spiny lobster caught in Florida and about 6 percent of the world supply. Many fishermen in the Keys gave up on the season, but some gambled and kept their traps in the water with the lure of a strong demand in the Asian market driving prices up to $18 per pound from a season opening rate of just $4 per pound.
“Fortunately we found the lobsters where they moved to, in real deep water and in the winter, when prices went to the highest I’ve ever seen,” Nichols said.
But Kelly says that most of the fleet was not so fortunate and suffered a bad year.
Just before midnight Thursday, Pastor Robby Davis of the Layton Community Baptist Church blessed the fleet over VH radio from the bridge of Nichols’ boat. “I asked for God to watch over them” for a safe and prosperous season, Davis said.
Next began the backbreaking work of loading the traps — weighted up to 60 pounds with heavy cement to keep them on the sea floor — onto the boats. Once loaded, the captains motor slowly to their favorite dropping spots gleaned from years of trial and error.
It’s hard work, displayed by all the sweat pouring off the faces of the four-man crew of the Key Largo-based boat, Hustler.
While many captains have enough crew to do the heavy lifting while they run the forklift to transport the traps to the edge of the dock, Greco did both. It’s only his second year as owner and captain of Dirty Girl, after he spent nearly a decade working for others. “I worked my way up,” he said. “Not bad for a high-school dropout.”