Hopes are high for high prices and calm seas as the Florida Keys commercial lobster fleet prepares for Saturday’s opening of the regular crawfish season.
“Based on the level of [juvenile lobster] recruitment we’ve seen, we expect another outstanding season,” Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said Tuesday.
Last year, Key commercial lobster trappers and divers collected about 5.2 million pounds of lobster, which accounts for 90 percent of Florida’s statewide lobster harvest.
“Lobster is the largest [commercial fishing] cash crop in the Keys, and the largest in the state of Florida,” Kelly said.
“Every season, our biggest issue facing lobster and stone-crab trap fishermen is tropical storms and hurricanes that displace and destroy gear and disrupt the normal migratory pattern of lobster,” Kelly said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.”
Florida law limits the lobster-trap industry to a total of 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.
The Asian market for live Keys lobster has emerged as the most significant factor in determining wholesale prices paid to fishermen.
“Last year, the Chinese economy was in turmoil during August and September so prices were about 25 to 30 percent lower than they were in the previous season,” Lower Keys fisherman George Niles said. “We’re hoping that gets straightened out this year.”
Recent research efforts indicate that spawning-season closures, similar to the four-month Florida closure, in Nicaragua and the the Honduras have increased the production of larval baby lobster called puerli that travel north from the Caribbean and eventually reach the Keys.
The regular lobster season runs through through March 31 but most of the commercial harvest takes place in the first few months.
Recreational divers with state licenses can resume seeking lobster, including night dives that are banned in the July sport-diving days in Keys waters.
There are restrictions against nearshore diving and snorkeling in unincorporated Monroe County, Key West, Islamorada and Layton during the first five days of the regular season. Nearshore is considered 300 feet for most divers (with some exceptions for waterfront property owners). Swimming is allowed but without mask or scuba gear. Key Colony Beach has a 10-day nearshore rule; Marathon does not have a nearshore rule for regular season.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206