Spiny lobster season is off to a brisk start this year, with fishermen reporting large catches and a fair price.
However, trap robbing is also very active so far this season, especially off the Middle Keys, say fishermen and law enforcement officials.
Spiny lobster season started Aug. 16 and runs through March 31.
An increase in demand from China in the past several weeks has propped up the wholesale price for live lobster, with fishermen being paid between $13 and $16 per lobster, Middle Keys fisherman Gary Nichols said.
"I don't know anyone who is selling them dead," he said. "The Chinese are so aggressive right now. I have guys (in China) calling me that I have not talked to in five years ... . The prices are tremendous ... . But it's a long season. We are catching them now. That doesn't mean we will be catching them later."
Those who are selling them dead are getting about $6.50 per pound, Nichols said.
"Last year, we had to soak them longer and we were only catching half as many," Lower Keys fishermen Josh Nicklaus said. "This year, we are checking our traps more regularly and catching more."
However, thieves are cutting into the profits of local trap fishermen.
"I have had my traps robbed since the second week of season," Nichols said. "Fishermen need to report this to the authorities. We need to give them the information. They need a starting point. If they don't know it is happening, they can't do anything."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) is reporting a lot of traps are being robbed in the waters off Bahia Honda State Park to Duck Key, FWC Capt. Dave Dipre said.
FWC is enlisting the support of the Coast Guard, Sheriff's Office and Customs and Border Patrol to crack down on trap robbing, as all agencies regularly patrol the waters off the Keys.
"We all know some of the players," Dipre said. "They are not just robbing traps. They are involved in other things as well ... . It's a small town, and we all have to work together."
This season comes after one of the worst spiny lobster seasons in decades.
Fishermen harvested roughly 4 million pounds of spiny lobster last season, compared with 5.8 million pounds the previous season and 5.9 million pounds in the 2010-11 season, state records show.
Fishermen will start splashing their stone crab traps on Friday and begin checking them Oct. 15. Stone crab season last year also was dismal.
Stone crab fishermen harvested about 2 million pounds of crab claws, according to FWC records. A banner year would be about 3 million pounds.