In 2012, a mixed bag for Keys fishermen

Commercial fishermen in the Florida Keys ended 2012 enduring poor seasons on lobster and stone crabs, after enjoying strong seasons on the crustaceans that ended in the spring.

Lobster and stone-crab claws are the most lucrative catch for Monroe County’s commercial fleet, which accounts for the Keys’ second largest economic driver behind tourism.

Lobster harvests rebounded to 5.7 million pounds statewide in the 2011-12 season that ended in March. The Florida Keys fleet caught nearly 90 percent of that total, and dockside prices were good.

Since the current lobster season opened in August, words like “poor” and “disappointing” have been used to describe the take. Final numbers will not be available until the season closes.

Hurricane Isaac delivered another punch weeks in late August, just weeks after lobster traps went into the water. Isaac caused few problems on shore but destroyed a large amount of fishing gear, commercial groups said.

The drop in stone-crab harvests from the season that closed in May with an estimated 2.67 million pounds statewide has been even steeper.

Since the first days of the new season in October, fishermen say crabs have become stunningly scarce. Theories for the drop range from climate change and effects from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to over-harvesting and natural cycles. Experts say it likely is a combination of factors that could take years to discern.

In other notable fishing developments from 2012:

  • In May, a 16-month ban on fishing for several types of deepwater snapper and grouper in Atlantic waters below 240 feet was dropped. The rule, adopted to protect overfished speckled hind and Warsaw grouper from being caught by accident, caused a higher economic cost to fishermen than expected, federal managers said.

  • Potential effects of federal annual catch limits became apparent in October when a closure for commercial yellowtail snapper was declared. Commercial fishermen protested that the limit for yellowtail was unreasonably low. Literally hours before the ban took hold, fishery managers agreed to keep the season open through year’s end 2012.

  • Some Keys charterboat crews took a financial hit in April when a federal ban was imposed on selling dolphin and wahoo taken on recreational charter trips.

  • Some local captains and mates working off charter boats with necessary federal and state species licenses reportedly make thousands of dollars annually selling dolphin caught by charter customers. If properly licensed, those boats still can sell dolphin taken on non-sportfishing trips.
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