Food & Drink

Fresh Florida lobster won’t be easy to find after Hurricane Irma

Commercial lobster fisherman transfer their catch from their boat into a bushel basket. .
Commercial lobster fisherman transfer their catch from their boat into a bushel basket. . Peter Maczek

Marooned on no-name sandbars among the mangroves in the Florida Keys are acres of broken lobster traps and the crumbled livelihoods of Florida fishermen.

Many marinas and harbors in the middle Keys are closed. Boats that normally would carry lobster trappers and fishermen into the Keys’ fruitful waters were forbidden by the U.S Coast Guard from sailing for more than a week. The middle keys are a minefield of boat wreckage and underwater power lines that stand to make hidden booby traps for any would-be fisherman.

More than two weeks after Hurricane Irma, the Keys’ $150 million commercial fishing and trapping industry is at a standstill. And the result could affect every link in the chain, from the fisherman to the restaurant and grocery store consumer. If you find Florida spiny lobster at your local market, it will undoubtedly be frozen.

“The fishing industry in the Keys is frozen, paralyzed. We’re literally in a state of shock,” said Luis Garcia, owner of Garcia’s Seafood Grille and Fish Market in Miami, who also owns a pair of commercial fishing boats with his brother to feed the business. “We’re in a weird place of picking up the pieces and seeing where we are as an industry.”

Boats are pushed up along the shore line in Marathon on Sept. 19, after Hurricane Irma passed through the area. More than two weeks after Irma, the Keys’ $150 million commercial fishing and trapping industry is at a standstill. Joe Raedle Getty Images

Most fishermen won’t be able to start catching lobster again until late October. And the start of stone crab season is nearly a month away. By that time, the damage to the industry will be done.

Lobster fishermen will have missed the heart of the season, which runs from Aug. 6 to April 30 and makes up an industry worth about $50 million a year to the Keys — about a third of its $150 million commercial fishing industry that includes the yellowtail and hog snapper for which South Florida is famous. Behind tourism, fishing is the second-largest economic driver in the Keys. More than 90 percent of the lobster fished in Florida comes from the Keys — and August and September are its crucial months.

“The lobster harvest will be down, absolutely,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. “I’m fearful there are substantial losses.”

Irma’s winds did more than toss homes into the sea. It blew the majority of about 350,000 lobster traps in Monroe and Miami-Dade County to God-knows-where. Winds and currents carried the traps from locations that fishermen have saved with GPS coordinates to points unknown. Taking Coast Guard precautions into account, some fishermen returned to the sea late last week, in search of their lobster gear, coming back with depressing results.

“Guys are finding maybe 50 to 100 traps a day, but they’re pretty much trashed,” said Zane Osborn, of Coppitt Key, a lobster fisherman based out of Ramrod Key, who expects to not be able to find the majority of his 1,400 lobster traps.

At a cost of about $35 a trap, Osborn could be out nearly $50,000. He has already ordered wood and concrete to build new traps. Working “sun up to 5 p.m.,” Osborn says he and a crew of three could build 75 traps a day. But he has no idea when he will return to lobster trapping again full time.

“It’s definitely going to be a bad year,” he said. “It’s not going to be a normal, profitable year.”

Bertini Bros_1
Brothers Brandon and Mark Bertin unloaded crates of Florida spiny lobster at Three Hands Fish, but that was before Hurricane Irma scattered their lobster traps two weeks ago. Peter Maczek

That mirrors what Kelly is hearing from many lobster fishermen. One went out Wednesday only to find disappointment.

“He pulled traps for six hours and from over 200 traps, only one was intact,” Kelly said.

On most days during lobster season, Garcia’s Seafood might receive 200-300 pounds of fresh lobsters per boat at his Miami River fish market. Wednesday of last week, his boat captain pulled in with nine lobsters.

“Most of those traps, they’re everywhere, scattered,” Garcia said.

Last weekend, University of Florida mapping experts were set to take aerial photos, in conjunction with the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, to help map the lost traps with GPS equipment, so fishermen might have a better chance of recovering their gear — whatever condition it is in.

Florida’s government is trying to help, too. Florida Fish and Wildlife has made several regulatory changes to help fishermen get back on the water as soon as possible. They have extended the amount of time trappers have to renew their licenses, waived fees to replace tags that identify their traps, and allowed trappers to drop in their new traps without tags until they can get them replaced.

“As a Commission, we are glad to reduce these regulations and waive fees so this important livelihood can begin to move forward,” FWC Chairman Brian Yablonski wrote in a statement.

The Keys has a $150 million commercial fishing industry that includes the yellowtail and hog snapper for which South Florida is famous.

Power was out for weeks for the middle Keys — and that’s a grave concern for the industry. Wholesellers who would be buying lobster and fish from local fishermen didn’t have electricity to power coolers to keep fish and lobster fresh. The select few who have generators fed them a steady diet of fuel to keep their inventory preserved.

The insurance company Lloyds of London even ferried diesel to power generators at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries, the family-owned company that supplies Joe’s Stone Crab with stone crab, said Joe’s Stone Crab owner Stephen Sawitz.

Just as worrisome is the question of labor. The Keys’ industry depends on the local fishermen who live in the middle Keys in affordable mobile homes and trailers — most of which where obliterated amid the Category 4 hurricane-force winds.

“The labor is my biggest fear,” said Keys Fisheries general manager Greg D’Agostino, adding that he was forced to start hiring from Miami-Dade County.

It’s the smaller operations that bore the brunt.

Bob Holloway stood in a building without a roof last week at Fanci Seafood in Cudjoe Key, which, along with Big Pine, was one of the hardest hit areas. The sound of saws and drills blared in the background as he spoke on the phone about a business that may not survive this storm. He had no power, no running water, and no way to keep lobster for resale even if he could open his doors.

“We’re tore up pretty good,” he said. “The lobster was supposed to get us through the summer doldrums. We rely on the lobster to get us through. … But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reopen.”

Holloway leases the building. If he can’t make the necessary repairs, he said he’ll sell his equipment and move out.

Paul Menta @ Stoned Crab
Paul Menta will be fishing for his restaurant in Key West, The Stoned Crab. But lobster trapping now will be near impossible, he said: “There’s so much wreckage. It’s a mess out there.” Peter Maczek

Key West avoided the brunt of the storm. That lets Paul Menta of Three Hands Fish wholeseller and chef of The Stoned Crab at least fish for his own restaurant. He is giving his 1,100 lobster traps up for lost and relying on about 8,000 pounds of lobster he has cryogenically preserved.

“We can’t get out on the water, there’s so much wreckage. It’s a mess out there,” he said.

That leaves trap fishermen looking forward: stone crab season, which begins Oct. 15. Stone crab season likely will be unaffected, said Sawitz of Joe’s Stone Crab, even though his family’s own facility in Everglades City, in southwest Florida, was damaged during the storm.

“We’ve gotten through a lot in the last 104 years,” he said.

Many trap fishermen don’t expect to bounce back and start catching lobster until mid-November, so they will focus on making sure they have plenty of stone crab traps ready to go in the water. (Menta said his stone crab traps were tossed during the storm but most remain unscathed.)

No one is discounting the Keys’ resilience.

“Their spirit isn’t broken, it’s just battered and bruised,” Garcia said. “The people of the Florida Keys are going to fight.”