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High expectations for regular lobster season

Commercial trap fishermen wouldn't mind a repeat of last season when they make their first pull as the new season dawns Saturday.

"We can never be sure but every indication is that this could be an exceptional season," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.

Holders of the 650 or so commercial lobster licenses in Monroe County put to sea Monday to begin laying trap lines for the so-called soak period preceding the annual Aug. 6 opening of the eight-month commercial and recreational season for spiny lobster.

The 2010-11 season marked an upsurge in harvests, returning to a statewide haul of about 5.6 million pounds, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute reports. Of that, 5 million pounds were taken in Keys waters.

The 5.6 million pounds counts as an average Florida season for lobster historically, but it follows a string of below-average seasons dating back more than a decade. However, sudden demand from China and Asia -- particularly for live lobster -- caused a spike in dockside prices after a dismal 2009-10 season.

"When fishermen are getting more than double what they were, it gives them a reason to catch more," Stock Island Lobster Co. owner Peter Bacle said as last season closed in March.

"Our early scouting reports suggest this has the potential to be as good a harvest as last year or even better," Kelly said. "We expect continued strong demand from China."

A legal-sized spiny lobster typically weighs 1 pound, according to state experts. Wholesale prices for dockside catches last season averaged more than $6 a pound for iced lobster -- and sometimes exceeded $12 per pound for live lobster.

One long-term concern will be watching to see if last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the heavy use of chemical dispersants had any effect on lobster larvae carried through the gulf by the Loop Current. The eight-month season runs through March 31.

Daily bag limits for recreational lobster hunters in Monroe County remain fixed at six lobster per day. Unlike mini-season, night diving is allowed. A saltwater fishing license with lobster endorsement is required.

A new Monroe County law bans diving or snorkeling within 300 feet of many shorelines during the first five days of regular season. Municipalities have different regulations; check with officials or area dive operations.

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