Almost 50 percent of lobster traps lost, misplaced during Irma

Just like on land, damage caused by Hurricane Irma varied throughout the waters surrounding the Florida Keys and one of Monroe County’s most profitable industries: Commercial fishing.

The Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10 delivered a blow to the Keys spiny lobster harvest about a month into the most economically important season for the commercial fleet.

Billy Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said on the bayside, lobster traps moved an average of 3.5 to 5 miles during the storm. On the oceanside, traps moved 8 to 15 miles on average and the greatest movement of a trap was 18 miles, from Key Largo to southwest Matecumbe Key.

Initial estimates show 43 percent of the 350,000 lobster traps in Monroe County waters were lost or displaced, he said, adding about 17,500 have been recovered. The Middle Keys took the hardest hit with about 80 percent of traps lost or misplaced.

“As soon as guys had recovered their personal lives, they were able to get out there and on Oct. 6, the stone crab season kicked in,” he said.

They deployed stone crab gear with the first pull on Oct. 15 and were looking for displaced lobster traps at the same time, he said.

Production for stone crab season, which runs through May 15, is expected to be fair, Kelly said. The lobster season ends March 31.

“Lobster season’s not totally over. There are lobster to be caught, but you have to be geared up for it,” said James Platt of Marathon. He owns both a charter business, No Slack Sportfishing, and a commercial fishing business, Marathon Crab and Lobster Co., and said both sides of the business have taken a hit. Thankfully, the majority of his traps are for stone crabs.

“But some of my friends that have a lot of lobster traps have lost as many as 75 percent of traps or more. Some were able to recover a few and build a few new ones and some of the guys fishing in deeper water are actually doing pretty well,” he said.

Still, the yield for spiny lobster this year is going to be down considerably, Kelly said.

“You can still go to the fish market and get them at a good price, we just won’t have as many as we caught last year,” he said.

Crab claws rank second only to spiny lobster in importance to the Florida Keys commercial fishing industry. All 1,071,544 commercial stone-crab traps in Florida, a number limited by state law, require a state-issued tag.

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219