Florida commercial fishers could get $200 million in aid

Spiny lobster are a mainstay for the Florida Keys commercial fishing industry.
Spiny lobster are a mainstay for the Florida Keys commercial fishing industry. Keynoter file

Florida’s commercial fisheries, hit hard by Hurricane Irma, should pull in a $200 million boost from the two-year federal budget passed last week.

The $200 million will be included as funding for the “catastrophic regional fishery disaster for Florida” in the proposed $300 billion increase in the federal budget, Florida U.S. senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio announced.

Florida Keys commercial fishers were among the most affected by the Category 4 Hurricane Irma Sept. 10, the strongest storm in 57 years to make landfall in Monroe County.

“The hardworking folks in the Keys and throughout our state who rely on Florida’s bountiful marine fisheries can finally begin to rebuild their livelihoods and businesses following Hurricane Irma,” Rubio said in a Feb. 9 statement.

“When it came to securing the funding in Congress to help fishermen and communities get back on their feet, we fought hard to ensure they would be taken care of,” Nelson said in his statement.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross endorsed the fishery-disaster declaration that allows “fishermen and fishing communities to apply for Small Business Administration disaster loans, Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance, Economic Administration Development grants and Housing and Urban Development community development block grants,” Nelson said.

“Fishermen, aquaculturists, and harvesters have suffered extensive damage or outright destruction of vessels, facilities, equipment, traps and gear,” the state’s senators wrote in a joint appeal sent in October. “Florida’s waters have provided family-owned businesses with income for generations but these businesses and people who depend on them are now at risk.”

Part of that federal money could go toward ongoing trap-recovery efforts, Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association executive director Bill Kelly said Monday.

“Every single lobster trap in the Keys was affected by Irma, either displaced or destroyed,” Kelly said. “The dynamics of these storms are incredible.”

“We have no intention of leaving this gear out there,” he said, describing a three-day project after Irma used aerial photography to shoot 15,000 images of Florida Keys waters from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas in an effort to carefully log locations of traps scattered miles from where they were placed. One trap dropped off North Key Largo wound up on Islamorada’s bayside, 18 miles away, he said.

About 50,000 traps have been collected but estimated 90,000 to 94,000 are still out there, Kelly said. Total costs for recovery could double the $4 million in gear-retrieval costs for Hurricane Wilma, he estimated.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission members already have voted to drop the $1 trap-tag fee for each trap the next lobster season, but commercial fishers still much file for their annual allotment of trap tags.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206