KEY LARGO, Fla. (AP) — Just as they prepare for a crucial harvest in the wake of Hurricane Irma, lobster fishermen in the Florida Keys fear a trade war with China could undermine storm recovery in the island chain.
Lobsters are among the seafood and other U.S. goods hit by Chinese tariffs in early July, after the Trump administration put tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of Chinese goods.
Florida's nearly eight-month commercial spiny lobster fishing season opens Monday. Keys fishermen had hoped the harvest would help them recoup losses from last September's hurricane, which made landfall in the Keys with 130-mph (210-kph) winds.
But the industry has come to depend on Chinese exports over the last decade, and fishermen worry tariffs that could raise prices by 25 percent will send the Chinese market looking for lobster in another country's waters.
"Coming into this year, we were hoping for better prices because of the loss of traps, gear and revenue," said Ernie Piton, president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association and a lobster fisherman.
"Hopefully the tariffs will get figured out because you can't run your boat and not make money, especially after a hurricane year when you've lost so much," Piton said in a recent interview outside his Key Largo home, where he docks his boat, "Risky Business II."
About 90 percent of the spiny lobsters caught by the Keys fleet go to China, Piton said, adding he estimates that 97 percent of his own catch goes to China. The domestic market for lobster had not been able to match the prices the Chinese would pay.
"Back 10 years ago, before the Chinese came in, we were getting $3 a pound, which you can't operate our boats on," Piton said.
After exports to China began, prices climbed as high as $22 a pound, fluctuating around the Chinese calendar of holidays and festivals, Piton said.
The average price per pound of spiny lobsters has averaged around $8 over the last several years, according to data from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Lobster harvests from South Florida, including the Keys, totaled between 5 million pounds (2 million kilograms) and 6 million pounds (3 million kilograms) in the past four years. But last year, when Irma disrupted the early part of the season, the catch dropped to 3.6 million pounds (1.6 million kilograms), according to preliminary wildlife commission data.
Irma wiped out roughly 90,000 out of 474,000 lobster traps in the Keys, Piton said. At $40 per trap, replacement costs add up, on top of boat repairs and maintenance amid lost revenue.
Piton said lobster fishermen just have to wait and see whether Chinese buyers will still find Florida spiny lobsters cost-effective to export.
"There's a concern they're looking elsewhere," Piton said. "If the Chinese do leave, it would be absolutely devastating to our fishery."
Peter Quinter, an international trade expert at the GrayRobinson law firm in Miami, said Keys fishermen have good reason to be concerned, since they face the same rising prices for Chinese products as other U.S. consumers, and tariffs on steel and aluminum will raise prices for boat parts and fishing equipment.
He said they also face a long-term threat: a potentially permanent shift in the lobster market. Even if the trade war between China and the U.S. was resolved quickly, China and other countries could conclude markets outside the U.S. can provide comparable goods and services at lower prices and without the political baggage.
"If the Chinese consumer is no longer looking at the U.S. for merchandise or products, this is not a one-time or seasonal problem," Quinter said. "Long after Trump is gone, they'll be negatively affected."
The dispute showed signs of escalation Friday, when China announced a $60 billion list of U.S. goods for retaliation if Washington goes ahead with its latest tariff threat.
President Donald Trump defended his trade agenda while addressing supporters Tuesday in Tampa, accusing China and others of having "targeted our farmers." He added, "You know what our farmers are saying? 'It's OK, we can take it."
Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, said in a statement last month that he would continue talking to the Trump administration about the tariffs "to ensure Florida companies are treated fairly."
Scott is campaigning to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, who last month blasted Trump for the trade war, saying boat manufacturers in Florida already have reported millions of dollars in orders falling through because of the tariffs.