June 13, 2018

Commercial lobster trappers will make their case to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board next week for a longer 'soak' period before the season's first trap pull Aug. 6.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Commercial lobster trappers will make their case to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board next week for a longer 'soak' period before the season's first trap pull Aug. 6.

SARASOTA — Florida’s top fisheries agency ponders changes to commercial trap rules June 20 in Sarasota, and gets an update on the coral disease plague that threatens Florida Keys reefs.

One proposal put to recent public workshops would allow lobster traps to begin the “soak” period “the Friday after the two-day sport season each year.”

The recreational sport-diving season takes place on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, so in 2018 the season will be July 25-26.

Lobster trappers, the most economically significant commercial fishery in the Keys, now can put their traps in the water Aug. 1. The first trap pull is allowed Aug. 6, the first day of the eight-month regular season.

If the rule is changed for the 2018 season, that would increase the current five-day soak period to 10 days.

A longer soak period would give trappers more time to place their trap lines, and give the spiny lobster time to find their way into traps before the first pull. A newly dropped trap will not attract lobster for several days, trappers say.

If the extended soak period is adopted, staff notes, the first day to drop traps would change annually. It also “could increase the number and length of time undersized lobsters are confined in traps,” a summary says.

Commercial fishers asked state regulators to allow traps to go into the water July 21, which once was the start of the soak period.

“Changing the [soak] date to Aug. 1 was simply to accommodate the two-day mini-season,” Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association director Bill Kelly said Friday. “It served no biological purpose. If the state continues to allow a two-day mini-season, we would like to see it start earlier so commercial fishermen can place their gear on July 21 without encountering any user conflicts.”

A more productive early harvest “would serve as a buffer from those hurricane-prone months” of September and October, he said.

Unlike lobster, the stone crab fishery allows recreational boaters to drop up to five traps to fish the Oct. 15 to May 15 season for legal-size claws.

Owners must attach their name and address to their traps, but unlike commercial stone-crab fishers, they are not required to have state tags for each trap.

That means state fishery monitors do not know how many crab claws are taken annually by recreational trappers.

Potential changes could include requiring regular reports from recreational stone-crab fishers, or mandating trap tags for the recreational traps.

The commercial fishers “support tighter registration requirements for recreational deployment of stone crab traps,” Kelly said.

“Annual post-season gear cleanups indicate a major increase in abandoned recreational gear with little or no identification as to ownership,” he said. “In some cases, the gear has become fouled with barnacles and other marine organisms and folks are not willing to pull the traps onto their vessels.”

Coral concern

After 22 years of monitoring Florida Keys coral reef and hard-bottom habitats, FWC researchers will report data reveals “a continued loss of stony coral and an increase in soft corals in the Florida Keys.”

Bleaching, hurricanes and temperature variations play a role, reports indicate, but now a coral disease first discovered in 2014 is taking a toll in the Upper and Middle Keys. Corals as far north as Martin County also have suffered.

“The disease has been confirmed to affect more than 20 species of stony corals and inflicts varying levels of loss, with the most susceptible coral species suffering complete mortality,” a briefing report says.

Work to identify and combat the coral disease continues, but the uncertain outcome emphasizes the importance of transplanting corals raised in underwater Keys nurseries, the staff reports.

“The central goal is to restore the structure and function of this degraded ecosystem,” a summary says. “This effort is continuously being improved through refinement of rearing and outplanting techniques, research and monitoring. In parallel, similar restoration efforts are occurring to enhance the recovery of long-spined sea urchins, a critical reef animal, are ongoing.”

The FWC holds its next meeting June 19-20 at the Sarasota Hyatt Regency on the Boulevard of the Arts.