Florida Keys seafood industry begins gear recovery after storm

To find the lobster, Florida Keys commercial fishers must first track down gear scattered or destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

“Just like on shore, the underwater has patterns of destruction,” Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said Thursday.

“Some areas have suffered major devastation, really hard hit,” he said. “Other areas are not so bad.”

One large Middle Keys family operation estimates having lost 6,000 traps, Kelly said.

“Guys in the Upper Keys have been looking for their traps and finding them, a mile or two away from where they were dropped on the oceanside ,” Kelly said. “The gear moved but some of it is still there.”

Fewer reports from the Lower Keys fishermen, where Hurricane Irma unleashed its worst, have been received because “a lot of people got back home only recently.”

“After tourism, commercial fishing is the second-largest economic engine in the Florida Keys. The lobster harvest alone is worth $50 million” in boat-to-dealer sales, Kelly said. “We’re talking about 4,500 local people in the industry who need to go back to work.”

“The question is will the animals be there, and will we be able to find then at a harvestable level?” he said. “As soon as the barometric pressure starts dropping, lobster head for deeper water.”

About 625 commercial lobster permits are issued to Keys trap fishers, with most of the state’s 125 licensed commercial lobster divers working in the Keys. Others in the industry are involved in processing and sales.

Beginning Sept. 23, the fishermen and Florida Sea Grant will use two aircraft equipped with cameras and GPS gear will make three days of six-hour flights to find and map trap debris in shallows and along mangrove shorelines so removal operations can begin.

“Law enforcement and the fishermen are going to be particularly diligent watching for thefts of gear and lobster,” Kelly said. “Don’t touch this stuff. The penalties are significant.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has temporarily waived some rules on lobster-trap tags, normally required under the legal limit of 465,000 traps (about 350,000 of those are in Keys waters). The waiver applies to fishers who have a current spiny lobster endorsement and trap certificates. Some other rules have been relaxed until Dec. 1. Those affected should contact the FWC for specifics.