The spiny lobster season ended March 31. State biologists say it looks like the total catch will be slightly lower than last year — but the seafood that came to the market fetched record-high prices.
While the fishery itself is in good shape, the largest threat facing the people who make their living on the water comes from the land side. Development pressure, which chased the commercial fishing industry out of Key West to Stock Island decades ago, is now reaching that island as well. The Monroe County Commission is even considering buying some commercial waterfront on Stock Island, to prevent it from being turned into a site for hotels and recreational marinas.
George Niles has been fishing for lobster out of Stock Island for decades. He's a former president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association and recently addressed the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council about the spiny lobster fishery.
Read an edited version of our interview below.
How important is the lobster fishery to the Keys and to South Florida?
It's the number one fishery in South Florida, dollar-value-wise. So it's very important, because we are the No. 2 industry in the Florida Keys, behind tourism. And that is our No. 1 money-producer.
And what is the overall value of the lobster fishery?
Forty to $50 million. We average roughly $10 to $11 a pound now. And we catch 4 million pounds.
What do you see as the future of the lobster fishery in the Keys?
I think it's very healthy. All the scientists say it's healthy. As long as we can maintain the health of any fishery, it's a renewable resource. We should be good.
And how about just having a place to bring the boats in?
I would say that's our biggest problem in the commercial industry all over the United States. If you read articles all over the United States, around any seaport, maintaining infrastructure is commercial fishermen's biggest problem. They want to build hotels where commercial fishermen have been for 100 years.
Given that we have such limited land and such high pressure for high-end resort development, how do you think the commercial fishery can survive in the Keys?
We're hoping that we can get help from our local government, at the state level right on down, to maintain the infrastructure, and maybe get some land into fishermen's hands where they could fish for the rest of their lives.