Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission

Where did all Florida's lobsters and stone crabs go? How the fishing industry is bouncing back

The red tide algae bloom plaguing Southwest Florida hasn’t hit the Florida Keys. And Hurricane Irma happened more than a year ago.

But they’re both affecting the island chain’s commercial fishing industry.

That’s a crucial impact because the industry is the second-largest stand-alone economic generator in the Keys next to tourism. Fishing is estimated by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association to bring in about $900 million a year to the Monroe County economy. That includes transactions such as fuel sales, dockage fees, and boat and engine repairs.

The industry generates about $150 million annually in sales for commercial anglers. A third of that income is through lobster fishing alone, which took a beating last season, said said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

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Spiny lobster are the Florida Keys’ most valuable commercial fishing harvest. Hurricane Irma moved or destroyed hundreds of thousands of traps. FILE

Irma, which crossed Cudjoe Key in the Lower Keys as a devastating Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 10, 2017, smashed and carried away deployed lobster traps, spelling a dismal start to a commercial season a little over a month before it got started.

“Of the 465,000 spiny lobster traps fished annually in the state of Florida, approximately 350,000 are deployed in the waters of or immediately adjacent to Monroe County,” Kelly said. “There wasn’t a deployable lobster trap in the state that wasn’t impacted in some sort of fashion by Irma.”

Commercial lobster fisherman transfer their catch from their boat into a bushel basket. . Peter Maczek

Kelly said of the traps dropped in the Keys, 154,000 were classified as “severely displaced/lost.”

“We were able to recover about 60,000 of them within the first several months post-Irma, but most were damaged beyond repair,” he said.

The loss in spiny lobster production linked to Irma was about 17 million pounds at an average of $10 per pound, or a total of $17.5 million, Kelly said.

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Read also Hurricane Irma wrecked a lot of things in the Keys, including lobster season (Florida Keys News, MARCH 16, 2018)