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Coronavirus Hitting South Florida Lobster Industry Hard

Lily Oppenheimer
China buys 75 percent to 80 percent of the spiny lobster, fishermen say.

The coronavirus is affecting the local economy through important local industries, like tourism. It's also having a severe impact on another industry — commercial fishing.

Spiny lobster is Florida's most valuable seafood. But the fishermen in the Keys were already having a lousy year.

Then came the coronavirus.

"The price crashed $4 in a day," said George Niles, who fishes out of Stock Island.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
George Niles says lobster fishermen were hoping the Chinese New Year would provide a price spike in a lousy season. Then the coronavirus hit.

Bill Kelly from the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association said the price went from about $10.50 a pound off the boat to $6.

China buys 75 percent to 80 percent of the spiny lobster, fishermen say.

"That's our main big money market. We kind of got away from our frozen market once the Chinese people came and started giving us $20 a pound," Niles said.

Lobster is popular for holidays and other celebrations so the Keys fishermen were counting on the Chinese New Year.

Then the Chinese government told everyone to stay home.

"We were having a terrible year and now, when we were hoping for a peak in price, a little spike in price, that didn't happen," Niles said.

And now U.S. airlines are suspending their flights to China.

"You can't get the lobster there if the planes aren't flying," he said.

Niles says the bad year overall could be due to Hurricane Irma, which hit the Lower Keys and Florida Bay in 2017. The same thing happened two years after Hurricane Georges slammed through the Lower Keys in 1998, he said.

Lobster season ends March 31. Now fishermen are thinking about next season.

"What we're really worried about is, suppose this doesn't get straightened out before next year? We're always looking for the future. This year's kind of over. It was a bad year anyway. But we see a lot of little lobster in the trap," Niles said. "But if we don't get this virus taken care of and start shipping back to China, we're in big trouble come next August."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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