Commercial lobster fishermen can make their first harvests Thursday as the most economically important fishery in the Florida Keys opened.
The Keys fleet started dropping about 350,000 wooden lobster traps last weekend in a "soak period" before the eight-month season opens.
"What's going to happen when the season starts is always the question," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.
"I'm optimistic that things will be good," said Marathon fisherman Richie Stiglitz, who grew on his family's lobster boats. "As long as the price is good, we could all make some money this year."
The lobster season that ended March 31 produced about 5.2 million pounds of the tasty crustacean. A legal-size lobster typically weighs about 1 pound, according to marine biologists.
In an average season, half the production occurs in August and September, said Tom Matthews, research administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute's office in Marathon.
About 682 people or operations in Monroe County hold commercial lobster licenses -- about half the total issued statewide.
But the Keys typically account for around 90 percent of the total Florida lobster harvest, Matthews said.
"Even most of the Miami-Dade fishermen come out and make a right turn to fish in the Keys," Matthews said.
Not all the traps in Keys waters will have a buoy floating above it.
A technique gaining favor among Keys fishermen is the trap trawl, or a string of traps tied together. That allows a fisherman to mark his trap line with a buoy on each end rather stringing buoys off each individual trap.
"The main advantage of ganging traps is that it reduces cut-offs" caused by other boats running over the plastic trap rope, Kelly said.
"There's a lot of boat traffic in the Keys, and heavy traffic in some areas," Kelly said. "A trawl reduces gear conflicts and reduces the fisherman's expenses since he doesn't have to buy as many buoys."
Stiglitz has used the trawl system for his 5,400 traps for several seasons. "I don't lose traps," he said. "If your line off one trap gets cut off, most of the time you'll lose that trap."
In a trawl system, the traps can be recovered even if one of the end buoys is severed, he said.
A trap trawl can have from 20 to 50 traps tied together, Kelly said. The distance between the traps depends on the average depth of the water, so one trap can be raised at a time.
Fishermen also hope the ganged system will reduce lobster thefts since it is more cumbersome for thieves on small boats to pull the traps.
The state issues commercial tags that must be placed on all legal traps, with the statewide trap number capped at 490,000.
About 80 percent of the Keys lobster harvest now is dedicated to the live-animal export market due to strong demand from China, Kelly said.
"Lobster caught in the Florida Keys today can be in China tomorrow," he said. "Our fishermen have become very proficient in their ability to maintain the animals."
A lobster intended for Asian buyers is kept in a live well, then trucked to a U.S. Customs base in Fort Lauderdale, then moved back Miami International Airport to be flown out.
Prices for live lobster last season went over $20 per pound late last season, although prices in the $10 to $14 range are more typical.
"The live market has essentially doubled the value of the lobster fishery, and that's a good thing," Matthews said.
Recreational divers also can hunt lobster during the regular season, with a Keys limit of six per day. Some nearshore areas remain closed to lobstering so marine officers urge divers to be aware of harvest restrictions.