At 6 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning, Ernie Piton and his son dragged wooden lobster traps across their dock in Key Largo. They stabbed sharp wires through ripe, glossy fish heads, preparing for the grind of baiting and checking Florida spiny lobster traps. As the fishermen turned the key, rumbling their boat to life, they hoped for a good haul.
Lobster fishing is grueling work, with long hours spent reeling in nearly 300 lobster traps each day. But it's been the family's livelihood for 35 years.
Piton sells lobster and stone crab through his family-run operation, Risky Business II. His 21-year-old son, Travis, also depends on this lobster boat for his full-time job.
For the last decade, the Pitons have sold almost exclusively to the Chinese market. During three of those years, they've sold lobster through a third-party buyer that works out of Miami, Ocean Dragon Seafood. But since June, the Trump Administration’s trade war with China has threatened their livelihood and that of many Florida fishermen. That comes as many are still recovering from losses during the 2017 hurricane season.
Hurricane Irma, which hit South Florida last September, "was a huge impact and a huge displacement because we had just gotten started fishing," said Ernie Piton, who also serves as the president of the Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. August marks the start of lobster season.
“The traps are like $40 a piece. Last year I lost probably 750 traps in the storm alone. And you’ve gotta count what those traps had in them, the lobsters that were in them, valued at anywhere from average of $10 a pound,” he said.
Piton said this was supposed to be the season that Florida fishermen recuperate from Irma - but now he’s afraid no Chinese buyers will want their fresh catch.
In June, the U.S. put a 25 percent border tax on Chinese imports. In response, China placed a 25 percent tariff on its own imports from the U.S. Then, China more than doubled tariffs on U.S. live lobster, to 40 percent.
Piton has been following the news of the escalating tariffs with apprehension. And he isn't alone. Many other fishermen in the Keys also heavily rely on the Chinese market.
Piton said his current boat price -- how much Ocean Dragon Seafood will pay for a pound of lobster fresh off the boat -- is $5. But by the time those lobsters reach China, the 40 percent tariff will make them more expensive than lobster from other countries, like Brazil.
“I would really like to see the President start working on these tariffs, because we’re supposed to be helping our economy,” Piton said. “Unless this gets settled with the tariffs, it’s going to be a rough year.”
George Kwong, president of Ocean Dragon Seafood, said during a good year the Florida Keys will export about half a million pounds of spiny lobster to China.
When Hurricane Irma hit, Ocean Dragon Seafood had to completely halt distribution of the lobsters.
“By the time we got back on track last year, it was almost the end of the season,” Kwong said. “Now, I don’t even know if we can survive or not,” Kwong said.
During a July board meeting for the Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, many fishermen were concerned with how to stay competitive, Piton said. Some past the Seven Mile Bridge lost houses and boats during Hurricane Irma.
To survive, Piton and his family have thought about altering how they fish to keep expenses down.
“We had talked about maybe working longer days and not going so many days, taking a couple days off,” Piton said. “Which leaves you open to people robbing your traps out there, because you’re not out there watching them."
But even with all of these uncertainties, Piton said fishing is still his lifestyle.
At the end of the day, after separating out meaty lobsters, his hands were pruney and calloused. A full tank of fresh, thrashing spiny lobsters sat beside him.
“You love being your own boss, you love being out on the water, it’s a beautiful place to work,” he said. “I mean, it gets rough at times, it gets tough. It’s what we do, and what we make our living doing.”