Florida Keys

China bought lots of Florida lobster despite tariffs. Keys fishermen paid the price

It’s Lobster time! Hundreds are going out fishing for the mini season

Fishermen and women at the Black Point Marina in Homestead have been scouting for lobster and they are getting pretty lucky.
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Fishermen and women at the Black Point Marina in Homestead have been scouting for lobster and they are getting pretty lucky.

Chinese importers bought Florida spiny lobsters in what could be near-record numbers this season, despite a 25 percent tariff their government placed on U.S. seafood last July, according to the leading Florida Keys commercial fishermen’s trade group.

That’s great news considering the fear commercial anglers had about the potential impact of growing U.S.-China trade hostilities on one of South Florida’s largest industries.

“Going into the season, the big questions were: Will the Chinese buy? How much and at what price,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “The Chinese did buy, at near historic levels.”

The official numbers for the eight-month season that ended March 31 won’t be available from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission until at least May, but the fact that China’s appetite for spiny lobsters withstood the tariff came as welcome relief to South Florida fishermen and fish houses that sell lobsters locally and abroad.

“At least we were able to move product,” said Tom Hill, owner of Key Largo Fisheries, a seafood retailer, wholesaler and restaurant in the Upper Keys.

In total, Kelly said this season was “almost business as usual,” but that’s a huge improvement over the 2017-2018 season, which basically ended shortly after it began because of Hurricane Irma. An estimated 100,000 traps were destroyed by the September 2017 Category 4 storm that devastated much of the Keys.

“Final harvest tabulations for the season will not be available for another couple of months, but dockside and dealer reports indicate a healthy season,” Kelly said.

This is not to say the tariffs didn’t have consequences. They did and they were serious for fishermen — they received about $2 less per pound than last season for the much-sought-after commodity, of which China is historically the largest consumer.

“Annual exports to China average about 4.2 to 4.5 million pounds of the 7.2 million pounds harvested each season, so the direct loss to fishermen comes to roughly $8.5 to $9 million,” Kelly said.

Full House.jpg
The Full House, a commercial lobster boat docked in Stock Island in the Lower Keys, sits full of traps in August, the beginning of the 2018-2019 spiny lobster season. Daniel Padron

The average price fishermen earned per lobster this season was $8.50 per pound Kelly said, and the average retail price was $18 per pound.

The majority of spiny lobsters commercially harvested in Florida come from the Keys. Of the roughly 465,000 traps dropped each eight-month season, about 350,000 are owned by Monroe County crews, Kelly said.

“The drop in price hurts all of us in Monroe County,” he said.

Commercial fishing generates an average of $900 million a year for the Keys economy, according to Kelly’s association. That includes transactions like fuel sales, dockage fees, and boat and engine repairs.

Of the estimated $150 million in sales for South Florida commercial anglers, a third of that comes from lobster fishing alone, Kelly said.

The Chinese market for Florida spiny lobster really took off about a decade ago. Buyers there have shown their willingness to pay top dollar ever since, so commercial anglers in South Florida have focused their efforts on Chinese customers. This season, fishermen sold lobster for as much as $15 per pound on certain Chinese holidays, Hill said.

But some in the industry worry that South Florida anglers and fish houses are overly reliant on China, which could prove dangerous with growing competition worldwide. Chinese customers are increasingly buying lobsters from other fisheries.

“As more and more countries get into exporting live and whole lobsters, there will be more competition for Keys fishermen, and that will keep prices lower,” said Gary Graves, who owns Keys Fisheries in Marathon, one of the largest commercial fishing companies in the Keys.

Already, Australia has upped its quota on selling live lobster by 2 million pounds, and China is beginning to buy more lobsters from countries in the Caribbean and South and Central America, which either come with zero or very low duties compared to those placed on U.S. seafood.

China was already paying a 17 percent value-added tax on U.S. seafood before the 25 percent tariffs went into effect. Now it is paying a combination of both.

“That’s when things just add up,” Graves said.

The increased competition and lower prices, as well as the long list of rules and regulations, are taking a toll on the South Florida commercial fishing industry, Graves said, with many choosing to leave and few coming in to fill the void.

“We import more fish than we catch in the Florida Keys,” Graves said. “You don’t see a lot of investment in seafood.”