Keys lobster trappers get a tag-fee waiver

Florida Keys lobster trappers must apply for trap tags but state drops $1 per trap fee for upcoming season.
Florida Keys lobster trappers must apply for trap tags but state drops $1 per trap fee for upcoming season.

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, every dollar saved helps, say Florida Keys commercial fishermen.

Untold thousands of spiny-lobster traps, the primary gear in the most economically significant Keys seafood harvest, disappeared or were destroyed by the Category 4 storm in September.

“We took a very hard hit,” said Ernie Piton, president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “A lot of guys lost a lot of traps.”

The statewide lobster industry based in the Keys will get a bit of a break in the 2018 season that opens in August.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at its December meeting agreed to waive for one season the annual $1 per-trap tag fee for the allowed 473,500 traps in the lobster fishery.

“We really pushed hard for that,” Piton said Tuesday. “Anything we can do for the folks to suffered a lot of losses to get back up and running.”

The one-season waiver could add several hundred dollars to a typical trapper’s business. FWC Vice Chairman Robert Spottswood of Key West advocated for the license waiver.

“Not a single lobster fishermen in the Keys and South Florida did not have a significant loss,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the FKCFA.

Of the approximate 350,000 traps fished in the Keys during lobster season, about 154,000 were damaged or moved miles away from where they were dropped.

“Some traps were moved eight to 15 miles on the oceanside, three to five miles on the bayside,” Kelly said. “This was a natural disaster, not a case of gear being abandoned.”

Florida Sea Grant staffers Karl Havens and Shelly Krueger helped coordinate high-tech efforts with fishermen to recover as much gear as possible. Traps account for about 95 percent of commercially harvested lobster.

“Our hearts go out to the men and women who were impacted by Hurricane Irma. The commercial spiny lobster industry was severely impacted through the loss of traps during the height of the season,” Jessica McCawley, director of the FWC’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management. said in a statement.

“We hope this waiver will help the industry, which is one of the most economically important fisheries in Florida, get back to work,” McCawley said.

Commercial trappers still must file paperwork to obtain the 2018-19 tags. Each lobster trap in the water must have an attached tag under a gear-reduction program.

To access the Commercial Licensing System, fishers can visit myfwc.com/cls.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206