2009年08月19日

ロブスター漁師さん大ピンチ!

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Posted on Thu, Aug. 06, 2009
Lobster hunters getting pinched as prices tank
BY CAMMY CLARK
cclark@MiamiHerald.com
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Cole Cunningham and Travis Lawlor loaded lobsters on a boat in Stock Island in preparation for the start of the commercial season. As the commercial lobster season gets under way Thursday, Keys fishermen are gloomy about their prospects: Low demand during the recession has led to plummeting prices for what many consider a luxury treat.
``Last year we opened [the season] at $7'' a pound, said longtime commercial fisherman George Niles, who spent the past few days with his dad placing 2,800 wood-and-concrete lobster traps in the waters off the Keys. ``If it stays at $3 a pound, we can't make a living.''
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Peter Bacle, owner of the Stock Island Lobster Co., said he can't recall prices starting this low since about 1990. But back then, operation costs were much lower for fuel, labor, wood, concrete and boat maintenance.

``We are hoping with lower prices, demand will perk up and people will eat a lot of lobsters, especially if they are as cheap as hamburger,'' Bacle said.

There has been dock chatter of a strike, but with no organization of the approximately 800 licensed trappers and commercial lobster divers, it has not gone beyond talk.

``If the whole industry decided to go on strike, then I'd go with them,'' said Karl Lessard, who has been trapping lobsters for 37 years and is president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. ``But it's unlikely.''

Commercial trappers of Maine lobsters are facing the same problem, he said: ``Their lobster is going for next to nothing, too.''

Tom Hill of the family-owned Key Largo Fisheries said: ``This is a worldwide issue, not just a South Florida problem. We have exported a lot of product in the past. But right now with the economy, we are seeing a hesitancy to buy.''

Hill has in the past shipped containers with 35,000 pounds of lobster to Europe and Asia. He said one overseas customer already has let him know he won't be buying this season, and another said he is waiting a couple of months to decide.

The expected rough season, which lasts through March 31, comes on the heels of several other difficult seasons. Last year, while prices started out strong, they quickly dropped when the lobster didn't sell.

``I had product left over,'' Hill said. ``We took our little bath.''

A series of hurricanes that hit the Keys in 2004 and 2005 destroyed tens of thousands of lobster traps, which cost about $30 to $40 each.

And the Keys' lobster population began significantly declining in 2001, according to Tom Matthews, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

From 1991 to the end of the 2001 season, 5.5 million to 7.5 million pounds of lobster were caught each season in Florida, with about 90 percent coming from Keys waters, Matthews said. For the past eight years, the numbers have been down by about a third.

In numbers released Wednesday, last year's commercial catch was just 3.2 million pounds, the third-lowest in the past 18 years.

A lobster virus identified a few years ago and known as PaV1 is believed to be the main reason for the decline, Matthews said.

``It's known to cause mortality in very small lobsters,'' he said. ``That's our strongest hypothesis, that they are dying locally before reaching harvestable size.''

Some say the reason the catch is down coincides with the state's limiting of the number of commercial traps allowed. But Matthews said 90 percent of the lobsters available were caught last year, the same percentage as in the past.

Hal Osburn, the new executive director of the Keys commercial fishing association, said overfishing is not the problem. ``Spiny lobster are not anywhere near being overfished. The problem the fishery is having is the economic side.''

Osburn said demand for Florida lobster also has gone down with the importing of cheaper spiny lobster from the Caribbean, where the cost of doing business is lower and regulations less stringent.

The commercial fishermen are getting some relief. Matthews said a new federal law went into effect in January that closes a loophole that allowed importing of undersized lobster. The new law mandates the lobster tails imported into the U.S. weigh 5 ounces or measure 5.5 inches.

``Before, we were having Panamanian natives legally collecting two-ounce tails about the size of your thumb,'' Matthews said.

Law enforcement also is trying to do its part. At the start of last season, an investigation dubbed Operation Freezer Burn led to the arrest of David Dreifort, thought to be one of the most prolific lobster poachers in the nation, and five others.

Dreifort was recently sentenced to 30 months in jail and ordered to forfeit three boats and three vehicles, and pay $1.1 million for sanctuary restoration.

Last week, in an investigation dubbed Operation Frost Bite, two 23-year-olds were arrested for illegally harvesting $11,000 worth of lobster from the Keys.

The state Department of Agriculture launched a lobster promotional campaign, which includes posters and recipe booklets, last season when prices began dropping. The campaign continues this season.

But the state campaign doesn't do much to help increase demand in France, Germany, Japan and Taiwan, where exports of Florida lobster used to go regularly.

``On the brighter side, the American market has really not been there because of the high price level the last few years,'' Hill said. ``This year we may see lobster on the menu locally more than we have in the past.''

Bacle said several restaurants in Key West are planning big lobster specials with the prices so low.

``We can't compete with Hamburger Helper, if people think they have to buy that to keep themselves fed,'' Osburn said. ``But, compare it now with a rib-eye or some thing like that, and it's actually less expensive. ``

Said Hill: ``Eat more lobster.''

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