Bug season ends run as a bust

By Steve Estes

Though this weekend marks the actual close of lobster season, the season has been all but closed for months.

When the first traps came out of the water in August, everyone connected with the lobster fishery was in good spirits because the catch was strong.

Not as strong as they had hoped, but then again, it never is.

The price was decent to the fishermen, the wholesale houses could make a few bucks, and the local restaurants got all they needed.

As summer would down and two tropical storms brushed past with no land impact, the season turned to “crap,” said Bob Holloway, owner of Fanci Seafood on Cudjoe Key.

The storms moved thousands of traps that cost fishermen weeks to find and replace, and outright destroyed thousands more that were never replaced.

Chinese buyers were back in play again this year, shelling out more for the local delicacy to the boats than the local fish houses could hope to pay, but offering some salvation to what turned into one of the worst seasons in recent memory.

“We could sell whatever we got in the door,” said Holloway. “But we couldn’t get it in the door.”

He said the fishermen were reporting that historically good trap locations were turning up next to nothing and that historically mediocre trap locations were turning up nothing. The historically bad trap locations were pulled and stacked shore side in the first three months.

“The fishermen that haven’t pulled all their traps yet are pulling now and the traps are full of undersized catch, so we’re still getting nothing,” said Holloway.

He said no one has yet discovered that magic bullet that tells them why lobsters don’t show up in the area during season as they did in the past.

A decade ago, the Florida Keys, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the total catch of spiny lobster and is the county’s most important fishery, could record catches in excess of six million pounds. The total fishery has been about that number in the last few years. It was about that high last year and the fishermen reported a good season.

This year, the final numbers won’t be known for weeks, but locals are guessing that the catch this year might be half of what it has been historically.

“The price remained high because there was no supply. But a good price on nothing is still nothing,” said Holloway.

Most commercial lobster fishermen are also stone crab fishermen, running both sets of traps simultaneously during the season overlap, and in most years if lobster is down, crab becomes the savior.

That’s not going to be the case this year, says Holloway.

Crab season has been as bad as lobster season.

“We’ve got a lot of fishermen who have already pulled their stone crab traps. They can’t afford the $1,000 a day it takes to put the bigger boats on the water,” he said.

“No one knows if the storms churned the water enough to move the catch out of the area, is the water too hot, too cold, are we overfished?” said Holloway.

No one has as yet made any statements that tie the poor season back to the oil spill of 2010, but there are millions of gallons of crude oil that are still unaccounted for, with the prevailing currents pushing what remains right across the fishing grounds of the Florida Keys.

“It just seems like there is a generation or two of lobster and stone crab missing,” said Holloway.

No one is as yet predicting what such a poor season might do to the fishing fleet in the Keys, but the smaller operators will definitely have to cut back somewhere, decreasing the size of the economic impact to the island chain, if they can even stay in business.

Stone crab season closes in May.

“It might as well already be closed. This won’t be a good year for balance sheets for the commercial fishermen,” said Holloway.

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