COMMERCIAL LOBSTER SEASON OFF TO A GOOD START AS KEYS FISHERMEN DEAL WITH INCREASED MATERIALS & GAS PRICES

The commercial spiny lobster season started Aug. 6, and the fishermen and -women of the Florida Keys have been hauling traps and diving for almost a month. Everyone now has a feel for what 2023-24 will bring. 

The Upper Keys boats have been “killing it,” with lobsters spilling out of containers onto decks — crews have been coming back to the docks earlier in the day due to lack of storage on the boats. However, in the Middle and Lower Keys, less product is being found.

But this year, no matter how many “bugs” are hauled in, the chatter among all the boats is that overhead is biting into profits and — thank goodness — the Chinese are buying.

“The harvest is OK. Not fantastic, but it’s good,” George Niles told Keys Weekly. He has been fishing out of Stock Island for 50 years. “But we’re getting two dollars less per pound than this time last year. Traps are $50 to $60 apiece, compared to $35 three years ago. And fuel is $2 more than when Biden was elected. And that’s pure profit.”

“My big cost is fuel,” said Lee “Lobster Lee” Starling, a Key West commercial lobster diver for over 30 years. He noted that he has seen a decline in lobster numbers in the south on the Atlantic side. “The prices are about $7.50 to $6.50 per pound. … But the Chinese are definitely buying. I’ll watch for the Chinese festivals when the price bumps.”

Starling also said that Upper Keys boats tend to have better luck at the beginning of the season.

“I’m killing it,” said Islamorada fisherman Jesse Hayes. “I’m working exclusively in the shallows, and I’m f–king them up. I’m in a little boat, so no offshore. The bully-netting is very productive. Last year was a good season. It was real steady and finished stronger than how it started. 

“This year so far is even better for me. It doesn’t really matter where you throw a trap, you’re gonna trap lobsters. But overhead is a big problem,” Hayes continued. “I haven’t done math — I’m afraid to — but comparing this season to last, it’s a lot more expensive to work this year. If not for the crazy volume out there we’d be f–ked.”

Bill Kelly is the executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. He said the entire fishing industry for the Florida Keys is set to hit the $1 billion mark this year. 

“The commercial fishing industry is the second-largest economic engine. Between fuel, boat repairs, dockage and bait, we are at over $900 million annually. … We are only second to tourism, which is $3.5 billion a year. Harvesting seafood is the second largest employer in Monroe County.”

Many Upper Keys fishing boats have been coming in early in the day back to the docks, since their decks are already crammed full of lobster, seen here.

Kelly agreed that the Chinese market is an important piece of this year’s economic puzzle.

“The Chinese are in fact buying,” he said. “The Chinese economy is good. There are plenty of millionaires in China — they have a healthy economy and celebrate family get-togethers and buy lobsters live to ensure freshness. … The lobsters get transported to Fort Lauderdale for customs, sent to Miami, then shipped to Beijing. Within 24 hours of being caught, the lobsters are in China.”

Jerry Johnson, manager of the Lobster Walk fish house in Islamorada, said that when flights to China are canceled, the price for lobster goes down for the boats at his dock. 

“Suspended flights affect the market,” he said. “The lobsters get stuck and inventory builds up.”

Bob Charney, owner of Key Largo Fisheries, said prices for lobster should go up later this season.

“We are optimistic for the demand out of China this year, which will improve the price of lobster for our fishermen,” he said.

Despite the dependence on the Chinese market, Johnson said, the boats are bringing them in at a steady clip. 

“It’s a good season for the fishermen,” said Johnson. “There’s so much coming in. It’s driving the prices down, but they’re making up for it in volume.”

Regardless of the cost of fuel and traps, or whether the Chinese are buying or not, nothing beats the feeling of a good day at work.

“This is why we stick it out, because we get a season like this where it pays off,” Hayes said. “It feels good to be bringing in a boat full of product.”

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.