FLORIDA KEYS — A far-from-banner spiny lobster season, at least for commercial fishermen in the Lower and Middle Keys, came to a close Thursday, April 1.
Lower and Middle Keys commercial fishermen reported a significant drop in harvest following the hurricanes and tropical storms that skirted the Florida Keys in August and September. Fishermen had more success in harvesting lobsters off Key Largo and Miami this season, they said.
Commercial lobster landings were near the lowest reported, said Tom Matthews, a fishery biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Trappers landed 2.5 million pounds, divers caught 113,000 pounds and bully netters caught 47,000 pounds, Matthews said. Overall 2.6 million pounds were reported landed so far. Landings reports for the last two months of the season are still being submitted by fishermen but usually add about 400,000 pounds, Matthews said.
The FWC estimated the commercial landings will be near 3 million pounds. The average for the past 10 years was 5.2 million pounds, Matthews said.
The tropical storms and hurricanes seemed to have upset typical lobster migration patterns, Keys fishermen said. Many Middle and Lower Keys fishermen began bringing in their traps early in January.
Conch Key-based commercial fisherman Capt. Gary Nichols left about 2,000 of his 7,000 traps out past January to “experiment” in different areas, including deeper waters, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and a tariff war with China, the largest buyer of Florida Keys lobsters, also further crippled the local commercial lobster fishing industry this season. The price fishermen were paid for lobster did increase as the season progressed, with local fishermen being paid $14 a pound since January, fishermen said.
Increases in the price of fuel and wood to build traps during the season also impacted profits this season, Nichols said. The price of wood increased three times since last year, increasing the cost to build a trap from about $30 per trap to nearly $65.
The cost of fuel has increased since November from $1.70 a gallon to nearly $3 a gallon, Nichols said.
The season will reopen Aug. 6. The two-day recreational mini-season will be July 28-29 this year.
In May, the FWC board will discuss a proposal by several residents and groups in the Keys asking the FWC to implement a tagging system for spiny lobster during the two-day mini-season in the Keys, which would bring greater accountability to people adhering to the six lobster-per-day bag limit. People multi-tripping to take more than six per day has been a major concern during mini-season.
FWC staff is planning a review and discussion of the agency’s management history and recent stakeholder requests. This is a review and discussion only, not a rule-making item, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said.
Several environmental groups, residents, FWC staff and Monroe County government officials met virtually several weeks ago to talk about issues regarding mini-season and the possible need for a tagging system.
“We have reserved them a slot for May,” FWC board member and Key West resident Robert Spottswood said. “We are waiting to see what they have to say.”