Fishermen have quietly good lobster season with foreign influence
Long-term infrastructure may have taken hit

By Steve Estes

With the end of Florida’s spiny lobster harvest season just two weeks away, the current has probably produced about all it’s going to.

That’s the thought of Cudjoe Key’s Fanci Seafood owner Bobby Holloway.

“Most of the fishermen have their gear out of the water or are pulling the last of it now,” he said. “We don’t expect any large harvest numbers in the remaining two weeks.”

Lobster season 2011-2012 was a tale of two groups.

“The Chinese were back in town this year buying fresh product straight off the boats at prices the fish houses couldn’t match,” said Holloway.

Where local fish houses, which had to deal with in-country market demand, were paying over $6 per pound at season opening and just under $6 per pound at season closing, the Chinese buyers, who were selling to an international market, were paying upwards of $10 per pound to the boats.

“For the fishermen that made it a very lucrative season,” said Holloway. “Even though the Chinese buyers were picky about the product they bought, even a small catch netted the boat a pretty good check.”

Local fish houses, he said, got what the Chinese buyers didn’t want, most of the commercial dive catch which is a small percentage of the overall catch, and the catch from those who support the local economy regardless of the lure of extra money.

“Compared to previous years, the season wasn’t so good for the local fish houses,” said Holloway.

In the long run, he said, the intervention of foreign buyers could wind up hurting the entire industry in the Keys.

“For several years, the local fish houses had agreements where they weren’t cutting each others’ throats in pricing. The market dictated the payout to the boats and most fish houses remained on that price. Everyone made money,” he said.

What’s happening as foreign buyers split the market, however, is that the basic infrastructure of the commercial fishing industry has taken a hit.

“The fishing fleet itself is about the same size as it has been the last couple of years, but the number of fish houses has dropped, giving the fishermen fewer choices for product other than lobster,” he said.

Fanci Seafood, while it has a sizeable retail operation selling to the general public, has long survived on buying product from the fishermen and in turn selling it to the bigger distributors who then sell to restaurants and other retail outlets locally and nationally.

“The flow through for us in pounds this year was way down from last year, which was down from the years before because the Chinese were here last year, too,” said Holloway.

The total catch didn’t appear far from normal, but the local fish houses were seeing a lot less of the product, limiting what could be sold to local restaurants and other outlets.

But when lobster is over, and the foreign buyers have left the area, fishermen have to rely on the local fish house for income.

“The Chinese don’t buy stone crab. They don’t buy scale fish. For a fisherman to work year-round, they have to have a relationship with a local fish house to move the product,” he said. “If we can’t make money during lobster season, it cuts our margins. If we go out, the fishermen have fewer places to sell other products and that could eventually affect the price to the boats through a lack of competition.”

The local stone crab season started out very strong, allowing local fish houses to recoup some losses from the foreign influence of lobster, but that has tailed away as well, mostly due to the effect of Mother Nature.

“I hear the West Coast still has a strong catch, but it’s been so windy here that the boats aren’t able to get out and bring product in,” said Holloway. “Either we’re going to get pounded with product in a short span when the weather lifts, or a lot of trapped crabs are going to die in the trap.”

Local fish house owners haven’t yet gotten together to consider what to do to overcome the foreign threat to business, and Holloway said he isn’t sure that will happen unless someone takes the lead.

“The infrastructure has to remain strong to keep the industry strong other than lobster season,” he said.

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