STOCK ISLAND, Fla. – The Florida Keys have reopened, 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 seven decades. “Some storms lose more than others.”
Just after Gov. Rick Scott declared the Keys open for business, the shoulders of U.S. 1 from Key Largo to Key West bore evidence of a region still rebuilding. Appliances, pieces of trailer homes and totaled vehicles waited for pickup.
Power is pretty much restored, but the damage is rampant. Rather than lit neon signs, stores told the traveling public they were open with spray paint on plywood planks previously used to protect against Hurricane Irma’s winds on Sept. 10.
Lots that hosted trailer home communities are now vacant. 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 a pair of 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 and fix damaged traps.
“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.”
Niles estimated that he is missing anywhere from one-third to a quarter of his traps. He’s harvesting 600 to 900 pounds a day, far fewer than the 1,000 to 3,000 pounds he would get if not for Irma.
Niles is hopeful that the lobster season 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.”