On Florida’s Marathon Key, lobster boats pull up to the docks in the afternoon, same as they would on any September day.
But this year, instead of hauling in thousands of valuable spiny lobsters, most are unloading the few traps they can find, and maybe a quarter of the usual catch.
Boat captain Carlos Moreira is tired after a long day at sea searching for lost traps.
“Well you gotta start somewhere, so you just look for one,” says Moreira.
“Yesterday, from where I had my traps to where I found them, they were 7 miles away. And to travel around, and try to find a 7 and a half inch buoy in the Gulf of Mexico, is a challenge.”
It’s a big loss, both for these fishermen and for the industry they drive. Spiny lobster is the most valuable commercial catch in Florida, amounting to some $40 million annually, and it’s mostly fished here in the Keys.
The commercial season to catch spiny lobster runs from early August through the end of March, but the majority of the catch happens during the first half of that span. In other words: This should be the heart of the season.
But after Hurricane Irma, some lobstermen have lost up to 90 percent of their traps. Boat captain Ray Saldino says the storm, a Category 4 when it passed through, scattered them far and wide, and mangled them in the process.
“They just don’t scoot across the bottom and stay flat!” Saladino says with a laugh, pointing to damaged traps stacked on his boat.
“You see some of them that are just torn apart on the top. It’s all scuffed up, see that. That’s flipped around, upside down, it’s a mess.”
The traps wouldn’t do much good now anyway. Standing by the meager catch he hauled in today, fisherman Alfaro Crespo says hurricanes also disperse lobsters.
“It’s a mess. Soon as the lobster recognize the weather: gone,” says Crespo, with a snap of his fingers.
Most lobster fishermen around here say they are packing it in for the season. In good years they might otherwise fish until Christmas. And many of them have lost more than their traps and their livelihood.
“I’m sleeping on my boat, because I lost all the contents of my house as well,” says Carlos Moreira, with a slight head shake.
Moreira built a narrow bunk, padded with a hunk of foam, in the wheelhouse of his spartan fishing boat. At least he’s got a place to stay in the Keys; others have had to move to the mainland.
So labor is scarce, and lobsters are scarce.
Boat owner Elizabeth Prieto says everyone around here feels it.
“It takes from everybody,” says Prieto, standing on the fishing dock. “It starts with the crew, and then the fishermen, and then there’s the fish house, and then there’s the restaurant, and then just boom, boom, boom, it’s like a domino effect,” she says.
There is a bright spot though, or at least a shiny hope for this industry, and its epicenter is in a tiny town on the mainland, led by a jolly man in the fishing business.
Howie Grimm introduces himself as “the mayor of Everglades City, the stone crab capital of the world.”
That may be an exaggeration, but it’s probably fair to say that no place relies on stone crabs more than this little town — both in the fishery and the income from tourists the local delicacy brings to local restaurants.
Everglades City is counting on the stone crab season even more than usual this year. The town took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma, including a storm surge that flooded neighborhoods with up to 10 feet of water in low-lying areas.
Stone crabs aren’t much to look at. Their bodies are about 6 inches wide and often kind of mud-colored. But they can grow big, tasty claws. A single claw can fetch a fisherman upwards of 20 dollars. And Howie Grimm thinks it’s going to be a good crab season.
“I think the water’s fine,” says Grimm. “I think it’s going to be better than it was before.”
So people are racing to prepare for the first day they can start trying to catch crabs on Oct. 5.
Half a block from Grimm stands a team of fishermen with an assembly line going, cleaning and refurbishing crab traps. In the same spot where Grimm’s brother docks his crabbing boat, Ron Ouellette and a couple of crab fisherman are hustling to cobble together a dock battered by Irma.
“We’re trying to do a guerilla repair job,” says Ouellette of the hasty work. “Eventually it will be rebuilt properly, but this is just to get this season in.”
Justin Grimm, Howie’s son, runs a business buying, processing and selling crab. He’s working furiously to rebuild that business, after 3 and a half feet of sea water flooded it during Irma.
“We gotta go back to work,” says the younger Grimm. “Just our one little facility here to open is going to mean jobs for about 40 guys, between the boats, the captains, the crewmen, the employees here.
“So, it’s a very big deal that we get up and running,” he says. “It ain’t just about us, it’s about the community.”
Everglades City isn’t the only community banking on a big crab harvest. It’s the same in the Keys, where Ray Saladino is gearing up for an aggressive stone crab fishing season.
“It’s got to be huge, because that’s where our income has got to come from,” says Saladino.
Saladino says the whole south Florida shellfish industry pouncing on stone crabs at once will put a lot of pressure on the crabs. He worries that if they are too plentiful, that healthy supply may depress the prices fisherman can get for the claws.
But mainly, he just hopes there’s enough of them to go around.