Conflicting numbers make for weird end to lobster season

From left: Bill Barnes, Ken Udell, Jim “Chiefy” Mathie, Tom Campbell, John Strunk, and Heather Schaefer display part of their catch of 29 lobsters harvested off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.
From left: Bill Barnes, Ken Udell, Jim “Chiefy” Mathie, Tom Campbell, John Strunk, and Heather Schaefer display part of their catch of 29 lobsters harvested off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. Miami Herald Staff

When the 2014-15 spiny lobster harvest season closes Wednesday, it likely will go down as one of the most unusual ever.

Recreational and commercial divers say they’ve enjoyed bountiful catches since the season opened Aug. 6. For the first time, bully netters’ catches have surpassed those of commercial divers. Commercial trappers, coming off the previous season with the highest landings in a decade, harvested fewer bugs than ever in the past eight months but have sold their catch for two to three times the price of previous seasons.

“It’s a real catch-22,” said Tom Matthews, a veteran research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon. “It was a big surprise. Many of the fishermen thought it was a good year.”

During the 2013-14 season, commercial lobster fishers — the majority working in the Keys — brought in 6.2 million pounds of bugs. Matthews said they kept their traps in the water longer because they were being paid as much as $18 per pound for whole live lobster by buyers from China. The catch level was so high, the scientist said, that it exceeded limits set by the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and managers thought they would be required to cut the allowable catch this season to make up for the overage.

But that didn’t happen because the fishermen have brought in way fewer bugs than expected; current projections are 3.1 million to 4.4 million pounds by season’s end. The lobster fishery is well known for fluctuations; it averages 1.5 million pounds up or down each year. So this has been a bad season in total, but because fishermen are receiving the highest prices per pound ever, they don’t see a problem.

Troubles have been looming over the lobster fishery for at least a decade. Matthews pointed out that average lobster landings over the past 10 years have been down by one-third, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Possible factors include a lobster virus first discovered in 2000 that afflicts juveniles; overfishing in the Caribbean where the larvae that settle in Florida’s inshore nurseries originate; loss of juvenile habitat in Florida Bay and elsewhere; or some other environmental factor.

“Biologically, it’s something that needs to be addressed,” Matthews said.

Miami charterboat captain Jimbo Thomas and his brother Rick Thomas dive for lobster in Biscayne Bay and in the ocean when their boat, the Thomas Flyer, isn’t booked for a fishing trip.

On Monday, they caught 110 lobsters diving in the bay. Before the advent of the Chinese market, the brothers could expect $6 to $7 a pound for their catch. This past week, they got $11, and earlier in the season they were getting $18.

“We dove a lot more than we have in past years,” Jimbo said. “When the price is $16, 100 pounds is a good payday.”

Recreational divers aren’t complaining, either. Veteran North Broward lobster guru Jim “Chiefy” Mathie said he and his dive buddies have been catching at or near their limit of six per person all winter long. On Monday, Mathie and six buddies harvested 29 lobsters scuba diving 40 to 60 feet deep off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea.

“We’ve been doing well,” Mathie said. “Throughout the whole winter, it’s been pretty good. You can almost always find them in 75 feet of water in Greater Fort Lauderdale. There’s not a lot of divers at that depth. Further north, it’s deeper. The weather conditions have been pretty ideal. The coldest the water got this winter was 72 [degrees]. We didn’t have a lot of cold fronts, and when we did, they were gone pretty quick.”

If you go

You have until Wednesday to catch spiny lobsters to eat and store in the freezer until the annual two-day miniseason opens July 29-30. The recreational bag limit is six per person per day statewide. You must have a saltwater fishing license and lobster endorsement, available at county tax collectors’ offices, some sporting goods stores and online at MyFWC.com/license. Lobsters must measure greater than three inches on the carapace, or head. They must be kept in whole condition until brought ashore. Spearing and taking egg-bearing females is prohibited.

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