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Spiny Lobster Fishery Gets Through Pandemic Season, With Some Help From The Internet And Hurricane Relief

Lily Oppenheimer

Spiny lobster season in Florida ends with the month of March. And the first full pandemic fishing season saw mixed results, with prices bouncing back but lobster missing from some key areas.

Bill Kelly says the spiny lobster fishery is like real estate.

"Location is everything," said Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Fishermen's Association. "We're seeing a significant season, a good season for spiny lobster and stone crab harvest in the Upper Keys and [mainland] South Florida. We're also seeing that in the extreme Lower Keys and down into the Marquesas and the Tortugas."

But Kelly said in the Middle Keys lobster were scarce, both on the ocean and bay sides of the islands.

"We've noticed a significant migration of those animals into deeper water, in particular on the ocean side," he said.

The lockdowns in China early during the pandemic didn't help the industry either. Kelly said China buys about 80% of the live spiny lobsters — and they pay top dollar.

"They're very particular about their product, it is obviously a gourmet item over there and prices crashed from $15.50 a pound to about $5 and $5.50 a pound," he said.

Prices have since rebounded — Kelly said fishermen are now getting between $10 and $10.50 a pound — and that the general public pays about twice that.

Another blow to the lobster industry was the shutdown and restricted re-opening of the restaurant trade. But Kelly said the fishermen found a new way to sell their catch.

"We are seeing a significant increase in internet sales of seafood products. Folks just don't seem to mind paying shipping costs and so forth in order to get fresh seafood products," he said. After all, the shipping may not cost as much as the mark-up and other costs of a restaurant meal.

Kelly says another way fishermen have gotten through the pandemic is from support that has finally arrived for losses they suffered more than three years ago — from Hurricane Irma.

"The amount of relief, and so forth, that was provided by Hurricane Irma has helped guide us through this thing and kept many people in business, both repairing facilities and getting compensation for loss of production," he said.

And, Kelly said, uneven and unexpected events are part of the deal with fishing.

"We're resilient. And, you know, we're used to this, we're used to tough weather at sea sometimes and things," he said. "I'm confident that we can hold our own here."

Spiny lobster season ends Wednesday, March 31. The recreational mini -season is on July 28 through 29. The regular lobster season, for commercial and recreational fishing, starts Aug. 6.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.
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