Sailing away with Keys lobsters
Neither pirates nor low prices deflate the spirit of Robert Palma and his crew
By Kathy Bergren Smith
Robert Palma eases the Lady Josephine away from the dock at 2 in the morning on a late summer night with a sense of unease. It is not the weather that worries him; it is calm and clear in Marathon, Fla., with a fine forecast. The 53-foot fiberglass lobster boat is shipshape, and its twin Cats are purring through the glassy black water toward the Seven Mile Bridge.
What Palma is concerned about is the precipitous drop in the price of his catch, the Florida spiny lobster. As he heads out to check on 4,000 traps, the price at the dock for the clawless crawfish is hovering around $3 per pound, astonishingly low. After last year's triple whammy of tropical storms sent the lobsters on a mass migration, and the economic meltdown sent buyers running for cover, everyone thought that this year would bring prices back up, at least to the $6 mark.
But lingering economic woes and cheap imports are giving the Florida lobstermen no break. Nevertheless, like most commercial fishermen, Palma, 38, is an optimist. From his perspective, there seems to be a slight uptick in demand for live lobster, so Palma decides he will fill his 3,000-gallon live-well and fish 500 traps and return to Marathon the following day, rather than make the circuit to all of the traps.
"I will basically have the lobsters that we catch today sold before we return," says Palma, because, in addition to running the Lady Josephine, he also manages the Lobster Connection, one of the Florida Keys' largest lobster dealers.
"We are an end-to end operation," says Palma.
The family-owned compound on the southern end of Marathon includes Pancho's Fuel Dock and Marina, the Lobster Connection and two of the largest lobster boats in the Marathon fleet: the Lady Josephine and her sister ship, the Ileana Y Lili. Palma is married to patriarch Juan Paan's daughter Emily, who runs the "upstairs" part of the business.
After passing under the Seven Mile Bridge, the crew settles into the bunks to sleep. Palma settles into the captain's chair and studies his impressive array of electronics. The lights of the Ileana y Lili are trailing close behind and will accompany the Lady Josephine throughout the night. Aboard the other boat, Juan Paan, 78, steers but will turn the wheel over to his son, Juan "Tony" Paan, 44, in the morning and will work the deck as he has since his youth in Cuba.
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