The 2017-18 lobster season could produce half the expected harvest because of Hurricane Irma, and stone crab numbers are likely to suffer as well.

“Harvest levels are returning to normal,” says Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Billy Kelly, but estimates that commercial lobster fisherman lost “six to eight weeks of their best production” to the storm. In total, the 2017-2018 season could yield 2-1/2 million pounds or less of lobster, an estimate Kelly says is half the expected amount. For stone crab numbers, Kelly reports poor production as well.

The numbers, compiled by Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, relate to the peak months of season – August, September and October.

The data showed that in August 2017, 816,229 pounds of lobster were harvested. September, the heart of season, saw 421,124 pounds hauled in. October’s landing figures are 391,025.

For comparison, the August 2016 total was 1,076,426 pounds, September was 1,233,025 and October, 755,241.

While the October numbers are incomplete, FWCC officials believe that figures for August and September are near completion. January’s data update could alter October landings figures slightly, but FWCC officials say a large majority of the landings have been counted.

With very few landings and very few trips reported in November and December, landings data did not yet reflect either month in the December update.

Key Largo Fisheries Owner Tom Hill said Hurricane Irma hurt Keys fishermen in a lot of ways. Some had damage to their boats, or lost them altogether, and between boarding up homes and moving families, some had to leave traps in the water. Some commercial fishermen plan on continuing to fish leading up to March, but some have started to downsize and look to next year, he said.

“I’ve seen many lobster fishermen bring in their gear – maybe they’re not seeing production – so they’ll fish with less traps. Some may go down to around 500, 400, 300, maybe even less than 200 traps, and fish fewer days,” said Hill.

However, even with the local commercial fishing industry turned upside down for a few months, lobster prices haven’t wavered, and that bodes well for next year’s harvest.

Hill says lobster prices are dictated by global factors including the abundance and pricing of other species of lobster from countries like Australia, the Bahamas and South Africa.

The recent cooler weather may also have something to do with the scarcity of lobster in nearshore waters. According to John Hunt, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s program coordinator, the research of Florida State University professor William Herrnkind found that when winter cold fronts approached the waters of the Bahamas, the local lobster population would move to deeper water. Scientists have since theorized that the behavior is a response to change in barometric pressure and dropping water temperatures.

Two things happen to lobster when water temperature and barometric pressure changes, said Hunt. First, the change triggers lobster large enough to migrate to move from shallow nearshore to offshore waters. The offshore waters tend to be a little warmer and don’t go through as many temperature fluctuations. Second, when temperatures drop, lobsters become sluggish.

The storm, the cooler than usual weather and the affected fishermen add up to one reality: this lobster season has been one to forget. Still, Hill remains optimistic for the future and recalls times in the past that his father, Jack Hill, hauled in large amounts of lobster in the final two weeks of season.

“Like any fisherman, I anticipate next year is going to be better than this year, and tomorrow is going to be better than today,” said Hill. “You just have to keep an optimistic outlook to the future.”

Only time will tell.

For fishing landings inquiries and Florida Fish and Wildlife information and regulations, visit myfwc.com.

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