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Coronavirus Slams Florida's Lobster Industry

MIAMI (CBSMiami) - His boat loaded with empty lobster traps, Gary Nichols pulls up to his fish house on Conch Key.

"Another happy day to get to the dock," as his crew tied up his boat and began unloading the traps.

Although China is 9,000 miles away, the coronavirus is causing the lobster season to end early for Nichols and many of the other lobstermen of the Florida Keys.

"Traditionally we fish to the middle or end of March," Nichols explained. "But the Chinese have stopped the buying due to the coronavirus."

With the virus spreading across China, commercial flights from the United States were recently halted. But even before the airlines stopped flying, the major buyers in China were canceling orders for Florida's spiny lobster. Fear surrounding the virus was hitting the country's economy and keeping people out of restaurants.

Florida lobster is considered a delicacy in China and is often the star of any celebratory dinner, especially during Chinese New Year which has been underway for the past week. For Florida's lobstermen, this is when prices soar.

"We had just gotten our prices up to a decent level," Nichols explained. "This is when our price is normally between $12 and $20 a pound for lobster."

The price varies day-to-day depending on demand, and Nichols gets an update each morning before he takes his boat out.

"Usually, I get a text message every day saying the price is going up a dollar, a dollar, a dollar, maybe two dollars a pound," he said. "But then I get a text message on Friday and it says the bottom's dropped out, we have coronavirus and the buyers in China aren't buying."

The prices dipped to below $5 a pound and has now settled at about $6 a pound.

"It's pretty devastating," Nichols said.

Not far from Nichols dock, another lobsterman, Steve Cramer was pulling his traps out of the water.

"We should have had another week and a half of really good pricing and then the price would have leveled out," Cramer said.

Shipping live lobsters to China saved the Florida lobster industry. Nichols was one of the first to do it 10 years ago.

"Literally our quality of life has been a lot better than what it was (because of the Chinese)," Nichols said. "We've been able to pay our bills make a little money

But now with prices down, Nichols says it isn't worth keeping his 3,000 traps in the water. The small amounts of lobster he now catches, he's selling to his Chinese buyer who will take them to a processing plant where they can be canned and eventually sold in China when flights resume.

"Hopefully today I might have made enough to pay expenses, possibly," Nichols said.

The coronavirus outbreak in China is the latest problem for lobstermen, still recovering from having their traps destroyed during Hurricane Irma, as well as the high tariffs imposed on their lobster by the Chinese government in the trade war with the United States.

"This has been a really tough last couple of years," said Nichols.

"The tariffs have been not good for any of us," Cramer agreed.

Nichols and Cramer know they are not alone. Any business relying on exporting goods to China are facing problems. Because of the coronavirus, China has stopped importing Gooey Duck and Dungeness Crab from the Pacific Northwest, as well as the more traditional lobster from the Northeast and Canada.

"I know one fishery that's stuck with almost a million pounds of lobster that's boxed up ready to go to China," he said.

Both Nichols and Cramer agreed they can survive the shortened lobster season. Both men, however, warned that when lobster season kicks off again in August, if the virus is still preventing them from selling to China it could cripple their businesses.

"Not good at all," Cramer said. "It could be devastating for next year if this continues on."

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