After another 14-hour day, fishing boats in the Florida Keys return to the docks with very little to show for their efforts. They empty a few baskets at a time, but there are not even enough stone crab claws and lobsters to cover basic expenses. It's all being blamed on this year's hurricane season.
“These damned storms happened at the most critical time a storm could happen to impact the industry, in the most critical places,” says Bennett Orr, the director of the Marathon chapter of Organized Fishermen of Florida.
At the very height of lobster and stone crab season, when fisherman make their money for the year, South Florida and the Keys were swept by four hurricanes — Dennis, Katrina, Rita and, worst of all, Wilma.
“Wilma has taken the toll,” says Ralph Boragine, the executive director of Monroe County Commercial Fishermen. “She's cleaned everybody's clock.”
The hurricanes, especially Wilma, destroyed or moved hundreds of thousands of traps at sea —costing more than $100 million in lost gear and reduced catches.
“For practical purposes, they're not in business,” says Gary Graves, vice president of Keys Fisheries Inc. “They're trying to retrieve enough gear to go back into business.”
Tom Coppedge spends long hours and hundreds of dollars a day in fuel and labor trying to find his lost traps over miles of Florida Bay.
“I don't know how to describe frustrating,” he says. “It's beyond frustrating.”
On Florida Bay, a fisherman without traps in the water is like a farmer without seeds in the ground. And a fisherman usually needs several thousand traps to cover expenses and make a living.
Coppedge and his son, Matt, are finding some traps with stone crabs and lobsters inside. But it's not nearly enough.
“This is the time of year that we should be making money and paying the bills,” Coppedge says, “and it's not happening.”
It is a devastating loss at sea, which could be felt for years.