Hurricane Irma wrecked a lot of things in the Keys, including lobster season

Spiny lobster season ends March 31 as the Florida Keys commercial fleet tries to recover from Hurricane Irma.
Spiny lobster season ends March 31 as the Florida Keys commercial fleet tries to recover from Hurricane Irma. FWC

Even before Hurricane Irma, lobster season looked to be on the lean side for the Florida Keys commercial fleet.

Then came the Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10 that wreaked havoc on most of the estimated 350,000 traps fished in Keys waters.

Many docks were severely damaged and some commercial fish houses closed for weeks during what is normally a banner month for harvests of the tasty crustacean. The commercial season runs from Aug. 6 to March 31.

“It was a bad season, no doubt about it,” said Bruce Irwin, a Marathon commercial fisherman for nearly four decades.

“Estimates are that people who fished the gulfside lost a third to half of their traps,” Irwin said Friday. “On the oceanside, it was about 75 to 80 percent.”

Irwin’s fishing family must replace nearly half of its 3,500 traps at a cost of $35 each.

“The whole fishery shut down for weeks so there were a lot fewer trips and a lot less income,” Tom Matthews, research administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute in Marathon, said Friday.

Calculating the harvest numbers for the 2017-18 lobster season has been “unique,” Matthews said. Many trip reports from August’s opening season are arriving late or not at all.

“Those August records might have been sitting on a desk or table” at a fish house when Irma hit, he said. “They may have been washed away.”

Monthly reports usually arrive two to three months later. “We’re still getting some reports from August now,” Matthews said. “That usually does not happen.”

It appears that August’s opening month produced around 1 million pounds of lobster, roughly 300,000 pounds lower than the 10-year average for August.

In Irma’s wake, September and October each produced about 500,000 pounds. The 10-year average for September is 1 million pounds, and 800,000 for October.

Last season’s commercial harvest was logged at just over 5.36 million pounds.

Late-season dockside prices in the Florida Keys this season were reported at about $11.50 per pound for lobster, when monthly harvests are a fraction of the early season. A typical legal-size lobster generally weighs one pound.

The commercial trap fleet, largely based in the Keys with around 625 permit holders, accounts for more than 90 percent of the annual spiny largest harvest annually.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206