Florida Keys

Where did all the lobsters and stone crabs go? How the fishing industry is bouncing back

The Full House, a commercial lobster boat docked in Stock Island in the Lower Keys, sits full of traps at the beginning of this year’s spiny lobster season in August.
The Full House, a commercial lobster boat docked in Stock Island in the Lower Keys, sits full of traps at the beginning of this year’s spiny lobster season in August.

The red tide algae bloom plaguing Southwest Florida hasn’t hit the Florida Keys. And Hurricane Irma happened more than a year ago.

But they’re both affecting the island chain’s commercial fishing industry.

That’s a crucial impact because the industry is the second-largest stand-alone economic generator in the Keys next to tourism. Fishing is estimated by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association to bring in about $900 million a year to the Monroe County economy. That includes transactions such as fuel sales, dockage fees, and boat and engine repairs.

The industry generates about $150 million annually in sales for commercial anglers. A third of that income is through lobster fishing alone, which took a beating last season, said said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association..

Spiny lobster are the Florida Keys’ most valuable commercial fishing harvest. Hurricane Irma moved or destroyed hundreds of thousands of traps. FILE

Irma, which crossed Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys as a devastating Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10, 2017, smashed and carried away deployed lobster traps, spelling a dismal start to a commercial season a little over a month before it got started.

“Of the 465,000 spiny lobster traps fished annually in the state of Florida, approximately 350,000 are deployed in the waters of or immediately adjacent to Monroe County,” Kelly said. “There wasn’t a deployable lobster trap in the state that wasn’t impacted in some sort of fashion by Irma.”

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

Kelly said of the traps dropped in the Keys, 154,000 were classified as “severely displaced/lost.”

“We were able to recover about 60,000 of them within the first several months post-Irma, but most were damaged beyond repair,” he said.

The loss in spiny lobster production linked to Irma was about 17 million pounds at an average of $10 per pound, or a total of $17.5 million, Kelly said.

“We continue to recover from damages to fish houses and infrastructure, and of course, trap loss, all of which takes time and was secondary to humanitarian efforts immediately following the hurricane,” Kelly said.

Tom Hill, who owns one of the biggest fish houses in the Keys, Key Largo Fisheries, described this year’s lobster and stone crab season, which began in mid October as going “fairly well.”

“It could always be better, but it could always be very, very bad,” Hill said. “We’re doing much better than we were a year ago when we were still cleaning up after Irma.”

Hill said lobster season, which began in August and runs through the end of March, is “better than last year, but not as good as it should be.”

“We’re not seeing a lot of production, and I can’t say why,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on it.”

Hill and other fish house and commercial fishing captains are also dealing with tariffs the Chinese government placed on U.S. imports, including Florida spiny lobster, which have recently become popular in Asia.. But Kelly said while this has affected prices, it hasn’t affected demand.

Hill agrees.

“It cost us some sales in that direction, but at the same time, we’ve been able to fill some orders at home,” Hill said. “The value of the dollar is a little stronger than it was a few years ago. This makes things more affordable to people, whether it’s color televisions, gasoline or lobsters.”

Even with economic setbacks, the lobsters aren’t gone forever.

While traps were destroyed and displaced last season, Kelly said “most of those lobsters didn’t go anywhere other than deep water until the storm passed, and they then returned to their normal haunts.” So, while commercial anglers may not be catching as many lobsters as they’d like, “we are seeing more and slightly larger lobster and that has translated into a good to very-good season.”

Fisherman Daniel Padron, captain of the Ava Marie on Stock Island, says lobster season started great, but “has been a roller-coaster ride ever since.”

Stone crabs

And, while the bulk of the red tide making headlines remains on the southwest coast, fishermen believe it is affecting stone crab season in the Keys.

“Stone crab season is a different story,” Padron, who is also a director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association, said. “A lot people, especially in Marathon, are bringing their traps home already.”

He called the Florida west coast “a dead zone” for stone crabs.

Kelly said red tides are fatal to juvenile stone crabs. Because Keys fishermen harvest claws (the rest of the crab is released to regenerate removed claws) over large swaths of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, the red tide of Southwest Florida has had a significant impact on supply.

“I would characterize stone crab production as: Upper Keys, fair at best; Middle Keys, dismal; Key West, fair,” Kelly said. “Our greatest concern will be for the long haul and what impacts the red tides will have in a year or two from now.”

Hurricane Irma also remains a factor in stone crab production, especially in the Upper Keys.

“In Key Largo and the extreme Upper Keys, Hurricane Irma scarified much of the benthic habitat to bare rock,” he said. “Stone crabs are ditch diggers so to speak, and provided they had sufficient time, moved elsewhere.”