One month remains in the regular lobster season but many of the traps put out by the Florida Keys commercial fleet are back on the hill — meaning pulled ashore until next summer.
“We’re bringing in about 235 traps now from 200 feet of water,” Conch Key commercial fisherman Gary Nichols said Tuesday.
“This season has been kind of fairly good,” Nichols reported from aboard his 43-foot boat. “It’s not as good as the last couple of years and the market has been softer.”
Tom Hill at Key Largo Fisheries agreed, “It hasn’t been a bad year, but it’s not as robust as it has been. I think we have had less production than in the past few seasons.”
September was a strong month for production, according to reports, but following the historical pattern, lobster harvests tailed off as the season progressed. “We caught real well in September,” Nichols said.
Florida Keys boats bring in about 90 percent of Florida’s statewide lobster harvest. Last year, Monroe County commercial divers and trappers accounted for 5.2 million pounds.
The Asian market for live Florida lobster, which buoyed the fleet after the economic recession, remains a critical component of the fishing economy but was not as profitable as in the past seven to eight years.
“It’s not a local product as much as it is a world commodity,” Hill said. “Whatever is going on in other places and the value of the dollar affects prices. It’s a normal thing.”
Prices posted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute show average whole prices for Monroe County ranging from $8 per pound in fall of 2016 to $11 in early 2017. A typical legal-size lobster weighs about one pound.
Prices tend to spike around the Chinese New Year, when demand for live lobster reaches its peak. “It’s Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one over there,” Hill said.
“The price jumped for a few days and then came back down,” Nichols said. “It kind of broke our hearts.”
A mild winter lacked the series of cold fronts that often cause lobster to move around the sea bottom and find their way into traps. The one strong winter storm with high winds “did mess us up,” Nichols said. “It blew our traps around, and it took us a month to get them back in a line.”
He noted, “In my 45 years of fishing, I haven’t seen traps blown that far away. And they didn’t get destroyed like they usually do in a storm, but they got completely buried in sand. We’d find the trap line disappearing into the sand.”
Florida law limits the lobster-trap industry to 475,000 traps, most of which are used in the Keys and off Miami-Dade County. All legal traps carry a numbered registration tag. The state has issued 625 commercial lobster permits for Keys operations.
“I don’t think the industry is going to complain too much about this season,” Nichols said. “Any year that we don’t have a hurricane is a good year.”
Florida’s regular lobster season runs from Aug. 6 to March 31 annually.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206