Lobster season closes, bounty apparently abundant

A lobster season that rewarded commercial fishermen with high prices and bountiful catches closes today.

“We’ve had good catches, good prices and no storms so it’s been an awesome year,” Conch Key trap fisherman Jeff Cramer said Friday.

“Last year may have been my best in terms of prices and catch,” said Cramer, in the business for more than three decades. “This year should beat it.”

Reports from throughout Monroe County — which annually produces about 90 percent of Florida’s statewide harvest of spiny lobster — are similar, said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.

“It’s been a robust season for spiny lobster and stone crabs,” Kelly said. “Prices have held up well, mostly fueled by demand from China and Taiwan.”

Final trip reports to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be arriving over the next several weeks but all indications are that it will end as a successful season, said Fish and Wildlife Research Institute biologist Tom Matthews.

“The last two lobster fishing seasons have had the highest landings and nearly the highest price in the last decade,” Matthews said Friday.

The eight-month regular season in 2010-11 produced about 5.9 million pounds of spiny lobster statewide; Monroe County alone accounted for 5.1 million pounds.

The current season had logged 5.5 million pounds statewide with the final three months — typically slow times — yet to report.

Regular lobster season opened last Aug. 6. A typical legal-size lobster weighs about 1 pound.

“It’s safe to say it will wind up being very similar to last year in terms of landings,” Matthews said.

Kelly said most lobster and crab boats have virtually stopped fishing in the waning months of both seasons. “Better than 75 percent of the traps from both fisheries are back on shore,” he said.

Prices also have remained strong. The most recent prices for dockside wholesale prices paid to fishermen were $6.66 per pound, a penny above last season’s final price.

In the grim 2009-10 season, prices slumped to an average of just $3.41 per pound as the economy sagged and stocks of frozen lobster accumulated.

Now, the market for exported live lobster occasionally can net fishermen more than $10 per pound.

Matthews noted, “While in was a good season for landings compared to the last decades, it would have been considered a bad year in the mid-1990s.”

Several lobster seasons in the 1990s generated landings of around 7 million pounds annually.

After bleak harvests and low prices earlier this decade, the last two years have provided relief to the industry, Kelly said. Wholesale income from the two crustacean fisheries generates about $100 million directly into the Monroe County economy, he said.

“That turns over about three times for everything from boat repairs and gear to home improvements so it has a big effect locally,” he said.

Monroe County has around 650 licensed trap fishermen and 125 licensed commercial divers. About 950 stone-crab permits are issued to Keys residents.

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