Keys lobster fishermen drop traps for opening of commercial season

With the sun beating down at high noon, Capt. John Greco and his two-man crew baited 100 spiny lobster traps with smelly cowhide and then loaded them onto his 28-foot boat, Dirty Girl, for another journey out to sea.

The traps were dropped six to eight miles offshore in waters 5 to 200 feet deep, and attached to ropes with a string of pink buoys for identification.

Throughout the Florida Keys and at a few other locations in the state, the crews of hundreds of commercial boats dropped nearly a half million licensed traps into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico in preparation for the start of the 2013-14 season, which begins Tuesday.

The fishermen all hope for the same thing: no hurricanes, lots of lobsters and high prices.

“Going in, we’re always very optimistic,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “The larvae counts and juveniles we’ve seen indicate it’s going to be a good season. But we also had every indication it would be that way last year.”

It wasn’t. The Keys commercial fishermen caught just 3.7 million pounds last season, down from 5.4 million pounds in 2010-11 and 5.3 million pounds in 2011-12, according to data collected by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“We were impacted by a pretty extensive outbreak of red tide, and also what we call the PaV1 virus,” Kelly said. “It’s fatal in juvenile lobsters.”

Tropical Storm Isaac also played a part, hitting the Upper Keys hard just three weeks into the season. Thousands of traps were destroyed, including 500 belonging to Capt. Gary Nichols of Conch Key.

“When the storm came, it was the end of the lobsters in my opinion,” said Nichols, who has been trapping them for 40 years. “It displaced them.”

Monroe County accounts for about 90 percent of the spiny lobster caught in Florida and about 6 percent of the world supply. Many fishermen in the Keys gave up on the season, but some gambled and kept their traps in the water with the lure of a strong demand in the Asian market driving prices up to $18 per pound from a season opening rate of just $4 per pound.

“Fortunately we found the lobsters where they moved to, in real deep water and in the winter, when prices went to the highest I’ve ever seen,” Nichols said.

But Kelly says that most of the fleet was not so fortunate and suffered a bad year.

Just before midnight Thursday, Pastor Robby Davis of the Layton Community Baptist Church blessed the fleet over VH radio from the bridge of Nichols’ boat. “I asked for God to watch over them” for a safe and prosperous season, Davis said.

Next began the backbreaking work of loading the traps — weighted up to 60 pounds with heavy cement to keep them on the sea floor — onto the boats. Once loaded, the captains motor slowly to their favorite dropping spots gleaned from years of trial and error.

It’s hard work, displayed by all the sweat pouring off the faces of the four-man crew of the Key Largo-based boat, Hustler.

While many captains have enough crew to do the heavy lifting while they run the forklift to transport the traps to the edge of the dock, Greco did both. It’s only his second year as owner and captain of Dirty Girl, after he spent nearly a decade working for others. “I worked my way up,” he said. “Not bad for a high-school dropout.”

Greco, 27, said he has invested about $150,000, which included $100 for each of his 450 trap tags. That doesn’t include the traps, which he makes himself at about $20 each just for the materials.

“I’m the small guy,” he said.

Tuesday, when the traps can be pulled up for the first time this season, Greco says he is hoping the market will open at a minimum of $6 per pound and eventually see the likes of $18 per pound again.

“We’re like the farmer who plants a crop and hopes there’s enough rain and sun for a great harvest and then hopes there is a good market,” said Gary Graves, owner of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. “We plant traps in the water and hope they fill up with lobster and there is a good market. It’s a very, very hard, risky business.”

Unlike other businesses that can raise prices when their expenses go up, the fishermen are at the mercy of the world market, which doesn’t care if fuel prices rise or traps need to be replaced after a storm.

About 80 percent of the spiny lobster caught commercially in the Keys is exported. The Caribbean, Australia and South Africa also are big producers of spiny lobsters.

Graves says he sells to 15 countries. “I can say I want $30 for a lobster, but buyers would say no thank you and go somewhere else,” Graves said. “It’s all supply and demand. Mother Nature tells you how much you can catch and the world market tells you how much you can sell it for.”

Since lobster is considered a luxury item, demand goes up and down dramatically. In the past few years, China’s prosperity has led to increasing consumption of the tasty crustaceans, helping to drive up prices. Live lobsters there have retailed for $46, Kelly said.

But former lucrative foreign markets — France, Spain and Italy — have slumped horribly in recent years. “China’s economy also has been slipping a little bit, so we could have issues there, too,” Graves said. “You can’t put a calculator to this business.”

Graves also owns a restaurant that sells lobster directly to locals and tourists. “We always do better with good volume of product at a reasonable price than we do with little product at a high price,” he said.

For the fishermen, fuel usually is the biggest expense, said Kelly, whose association helped successfully lobby for a new state sales tax exemption on dyed fuel used strictly in commercial fishing boats. It saves some fishermen 6 percent on filling up.

“We need to applaud the state legislature for passing some financial relief this year, Kelly said.

But fishermen face another problem where there is no immediate relief in sight. Since 2000, lobster landings in the Keys have been down by about 30 percent. Tom Matthews, a Marathon-based biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said the believed culprit is the PaV1 virus, which is not harmful to humans.

The decreased number of landings is not because the fishermen aren’t finding the lobsters. “It’s a very intense fishery,” Matthews said.

While lobsters can live up to 20 years, in the Keys, a whopping 84 percent are caught in their first year of life.

One longtime solution could be more protection, Matthews said: “In protected areas, we’ve got some very old lobsters. This allows them to reproduce much more effectively.”

Trap robbers also are a big problem in the Keys, despite law enforcement efforts to catch and prosecute them. “I’d say I lose about 10 percent of my income to it,” Greco said.

But Greco loves the job. He loves being on the water. He and his two-man crew, friends Fred Dillon and Doug Sipps, began loading traps at 4 a.m., when it was cool. By midday, they had finished loading Dirty Girl for another trip. They slowly motored down the canal that leads out to the Atlantic. Said Greco: “We want to be done today by Happy Hour.”