Poor production, lingering effects from previous hurricanes, and the covid-19 pandemic knocked Florida spiny lobster fishermen down but not out during the 2019-20 harvest season. Many are gearing up and looking forward to August’s opening.

“All my fishermen are getting ready. We expect a normal year,” said Gary Graves, operator of Keys Fisheries in Marathon. “My fear this year is storms. The water temperature is so hot.” The Florida Keys stayed out of harm’s way during last year’s hurricane season. But Graves said lobster production was down about 35 percent, possibly because of lower production in the Caribbean basin where most of Florida’s crustaceans are spawned.

Trappers caught more than 2.5 million pounds in 2019, about 1.3 million pounds less than the previous year. But dock prices averaged $7.76, topping 2018 levels. Then came early 2020, when the coronavirus health and economic crisis bloomed in China. With its leading customer for live product off the market, Florida’s lobster harvest dropped to less than 155,000 pounds, and the price fell to about $7.00. Graves said things could have been worse.

“There wasn’t a lot of lobster in December, January and February anyway,” he said. “Most of our production was pre-Christmas. Prices went down. Restaurants shut down. China shut down. If it would have happened in August, September, October, it would have been a disaster.”

Lobster fishermen from Maine to Florida had hoped for China to offer new exemptions on its 32 percent tariff on U.S. lobster as part of trade negotiations. But after President Donald Trump threatened on June 5 to impose new tariffs on European Union and Chinese products if those countries do not cut their lobster tariffs, prominent Chinese trade experts warned not to expect any changes soon.

Graves says it’s impossible to forecast whether the coronavirus will resurge this fall, whether or how much the Chinese appetite for live lobster from Florida will return, or whether hurricanes will destroy boats and gear.

“You’re dealing with Mother Nature and the rest of the world,” Graves said. “Who knew a virus would shut down the whole world?"

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Sue Cocking spent more than 20 years as the outdoors writer at the Miami Herald, covering everything from commercial and recreational fishing to powerboat racing and scuba diving. She once worked as a light-tackle charter boat fishing captain in Key West and had an 18-year career in radio news broadcasting. She lives in Sebastian, Fla.

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