Florida Keys & the Gulf Oil Disaster: A Commercial Fishermen's Story

As I continue to share personal stories from the frontlines of the Gulf oil disaster response effort in the Florida Keys, today I’d like to talk about the many commercial fishermen in the region who were ready and willing to help if the oil had curled its way south.  

The Keys is the largest commercial fishing port of call in Florida and, economically, ranks about fifth in the industry among the Lower 48 states.  Its seafood production—especially lobster, stone crab, and shrimp—is second only to tourism in importance to the Keys’ economy.  If oil reached the region – as many expected it might – the damage to jobs and the economy would have been severe.

People like Karl Lessard – President of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association – know this all too well. And even though the region seems to have dodged the oil so far, he knows they’re not in the clear.

Lessard points out that it’s still difficult to say what the spill’s impact will be on future fish populations of importance to the Keys. For example, spawning grounds for bluefin and yellowfin tuna were heavily impacted by oil – what does that mean for their future numbers in the Keys? 

Lessard also notes that, if a major spill were to enter the Gulf Loop Current in wintertime, a year’s crop of spiny lobster would be lost in the Keys, because they drift as larvae for months on the current—clockwise from the Caribbean (where they hatch), past Louisiana, and then to the Keys—before settling into their adult life.

Lessard’s 2,220 lobster pots contribute half of his yearly income—and there are 455,000 pots in total in Florida. When the spill began, the Keys lobstermen wondered if they were going to be able to deploy their pots, says Lessard, but they got a bit of luck: an unusual diversion of the Loop Current had kept the oil from the keys, and the oil and dispersants had sunk below the level where larvae float. But Lessard knows fishermen elsewhere weren’t as fortunate. “My thoughts and prayers go out to the people in the northern Gulf who suffered the worst,” he says. 

Most members of the Commercial Fishermen’s Association are trained in “oil spill handling” so they were ready to set up skimmers and booms, and aid in any other way necessary. Lessard appreciated the State of Florida’s daily phone conferences, which kept the Association well-informed, but he feels the Coast Guard, for one, could have better capitalized on local fisher’s expertise and eagerness to help.

As for whether the Keys were prepared for the spill to arrive, Lessard says, “I think we became prepared pretty quickly.” Learn more about Karl Lessard and the Keys’ commercial fishermen in NRDC’s recent report, “The Florida Keys Response to the Gulf Oil Disaster.”

And stay tuned for more stories from the people in the region who were on the frontlines when the oil was flowing.