After Irma: Storms leave lobster, stone crab seasons underwater

The Florida Keys have re-opened, but Capt. Billy Niles and his fellow lobster fishermen have to find their traps before they are really back in business.

“We’re locating them, but it takes a while,” said Niles, a veteran of the Keys lobster trade for the past seven decades. “Some storms lose more than others.”

Irma lost plenty of them. Or better said, the Keys lost plenty in Irma.

Last week, just after Gov. Rick Scott declared the Keys open for business, the shoulders of U.S. 1 from Key Largo to Key West still bore the evidence of a region in the midst of rebuilding and recovering. Appliances, pieces of destroyed trailer homes, totaled vehicles, all waited for pick-up by the side of the road like bulk pick-up day in your average neighborhood.

Power is pretty much restored, but the damage is evident. Rather than lit neon signs, stores told the traveling public they were open with spray paint on plywood planks previously used to protect against Irma’s winds on Sept. 10.

Lots that hosted trailer home communities are now vacant lots. Half-sunken boats still litter the coves. Blue tarps cover roofs. But not all the impact is visible from land.

In the lobster sector, said to be the Keys’ second most-important industry, the damage is underwater.

The massive storm’s powerful winds blew commercial traps out of place up and down the coast, and now the lobster fishermen are out looking to find them. It’s literally finding a buoy in a vast ocean, but thanks to Florida Sea Grant, they have help.

Florida Sea Grant, a partnership between the state university system, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state’s coastal counties, is paying two pilots to scour the seas to spot and mark the location of the buoys. The GPS marks are then given to the fishermen so they can go out on their trawlers to the precise location, pull up the traps, harvest the lobsters, fix damaged traps and, generally, get back to work.

“Irma hit right in the middle of lobster season. Every day the lobster fishermen are out of the water they are losing money,” said Karl Havens, the director of Florida Sea Grant College Program. “If we can get the lobster industry up and running, it will put money back into the economy.”

Florida Sea Grant, which is housed at the University of Florida, generally focuses on things like making aquaculture more productive, developing tools to help manage fisheries, offering programs to better water quality and habitat and proactive help for communities in dealing with storm surge and sea level rise.

Havens notes that dealing with emergencies, including the BP oil spill and the oyster collapse in Apalachicola Bay, is a major calling, too.

“It’s an important part of our mission,” he said. “When these disasters come along, we can be pretty nimble and respond quickly.”

The Keys’ tourism industry took quite a hit, Havens added, so it was doubly important to get the lobster industry back up and running.

Niles, who sails out of Stock Island, estimates that he is missing anywhere from one-third to a quarter of his traps. That means he is harvesting 600 to 900 pounds of the spiny bugs a day. That’s far fewer than the 1,000 to 3,000 pounds he would be bringing back to the docks if not for Irma.

Then there is a supply problem. Many of his lobster traps are damaged, but Niles can’t repair them without wood, a commodity that remains hard to acquire.

“Lumber is real scarce,” he said. “That’s our big problem right now.”

Niles also has another repair challenge: his home on Summerland Key. It was flooded by three feet of water during Irma, so he’s been living a nomadic existence since. Some days, he has slept on his 53-foot boat.

In between searching for traps, he’s been fishing for appliances. He was able to get a new washer and dryer. But he’s still trolling for a water heater, plus a refrigerator. All of which are in high demand, judging by the number of damaged ones dotting U.S. 1’s shoulders.

“My home’s been flooded three times,” Niles recalled. “By Georges and Wilma. And now Irma. I’m more concerned about getting back fully into business.”

Still, Niles says he is lucky. His peers working the waters to the north, beyond Big Pine Key and up to Islamorada, areas that got the brunt of Irma, have lost many more traps.

To make matters worse, another tropical system blew through and washed over the Keys on Oct. 5, the very day Niles and other fishermen were scheduled to put out stone crab traps. He said he is scheduled to pick up his traps today. The delay due to the poor weather that day plus Hurricane Nate churning the Gulf of Mexico means Niles may be looking at a less than robust stone crab harvest, too.

Sea Grant’s Shelly Krueger, who lives in the Keys and has been arranging the organization’s support for the lobster fishermen, said the impact from Irma on the lobster and stone crab industry has had a ripple effect beyond marina business. It’s not just the dollars that have been lost, she said, pointing out the lobster fishermen are the force behind an important tourism season event, the Key West Seafood Festival on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend.

“The fisherman are a really important part of our community, not just the economy,” she said.

Niles is hopeful that a lobster season crushed by Irma can still be saved.

“We’ll make some money,” he said. “But we won’t make the kind of money we would have made in a normal year. It really depends on the rest of the season. After Wilma, the lobsters disappeared. We hope that doesn’t happen this time.”

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