September 19, 2017

Conch Key commercial fisherman Gary Nichols scoured the Atlantic Ocean for seven hours on Monday and only found 15 of his 5,000 spiny lobster traps.

Fellow Conch Key fishermen Jeff Kramer was only able to locate a handful of his 2,000 traps he had placed in the Atlantic. Both are hoping that ones in the Gulf of Mexico fared better.

Nichols’ daughter Kelly Cordova Nichols was able to locate 160 of the family’s 1,500 traps in the bay.

Nichols and his daughter are also working with two boats that were damaged by Hurricane Irma and are “not properly operating.”

“I feel a little bit defeated,” Nichols said. “It’s hard to keep focused and have a firm belief in God and happiness right now. … We are just spinning our wheels out here right now. Everything in 100 feet of water is just destroyed. This was the storm of the century for us.”

Kramer and Nichols placed their traps in areas that took the worst Irma had to offer.

Of the 15 traps Nichols found, many were all tangled together in trap line and took hours to unravel, he said. Both had traps that suffered damage in bad hurricanes years like 2004 and 2005, but the damaged paled in comparison to Irma, they said.

Spiny lobster is currently the most lucrative of fishery in the Keys, with Asian markets paying as much as $19 a pound for lobsters at various times of the season. The spiny lobster fishery is a $50-million-plus a year industry and key component of the Keys roughly $150 million a year commercial fishing business.

“We are second most important economic industry behind tourism and we need to ramp this up fast,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishing Association.

The association plans to work with the University of Florida’s Sea Grant program to conduct aerial surveys of Keys waters to search for traps. But Kramer and Nichols said Tuesday that most of the traps in the Atlantic have just vanished, speculating that they were either ripped apart in the storm and sunk or miles away.

Kramer said that he spotted another Upper Keys fishermen’s trap on the beach, wrapped around a pole, some roughly 20 miles from where the fisherman placed it, Kramer said.

“They are not even out there,” Kramer said. “Some of them are in perfect condition on the beach. Its’ like they flew there not even touching the bottom. I hope the bayside is better, but we just got killed on the oceanside.”

“This is definitely a fisheries disaster,” Kramer said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has waived trap tag fees and are not requiring fishermen to place tags on traps they had on land and have yet to deploy, FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said.

tohara@keysnews.com