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Fisherman answers the calling of the Keys

  • Story Highlights
  • Lobster fisherman's family has been working the waters since the 1820s
  • Crew off the Florida Keys is on a quest for spiny tail lobster
  • Boat skipper laments the economic tailspin, falling price of lobster
  • "This is the most beautiful office that anyone could have"
By Jerry Simonson
CNN
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IN THE FLORIDA KEYS (CNN) -- In the early morning darkness of the Florida Keys, the low hum of the Mystic I is hardly enough to disturb the slumber of the tourists in their hotel rooms.

Lessard says people in the Keys first began fishing for lobster in the 1930s.

A lobster fisherman holds two spiny tail lobsters caught during the Mystic I's trip off the Florida Keys.

From the wheelhouse, Captain Karl Lessard steers his boat into the darkness toward the fertile fishing grounds off the small Island of Marathon, Florida. This is a ritual that Lessard has done thousands of times.

"I've been fishing for 38 years, my family has been fishing since the 1820s, there are a lot of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation fishermen that are here in the Keys," Lessard says.

At dawn he reaches a spot that holds a special meaning for him. "I pass where my mother's and father's ashes are scattered. Just around sunrise, it's a very spiritual place for me."

In the light of a spectacular sunrise, Lessard plots his course on the open waters.

"I fish for the freedom," he explains. "It's good for the soul. It's a fantastic way to make a living, coming out here in God's glory every day."

He adds with a laugh that fishing also "gets me away from the house. I hate those 'honey-do's.' "

It's spiny tail lobster season in the Florida Keys, and that is what Captain Karl and his three-man crew are on a quest for today.

"I am hoping to catch between 300 and 400 pounds, with the new moon that slows fishing down," the skipper says.

They travel 20 miles offshore to where they have put out their traps. They hope to find them filled with the clawless crustaceans that live in these shallow waters.

"In the Keys, people really started fishing for lobster in the 1930s," Lessard says. "Before that there was very little market for them."

Lobster fishermen in years past worried more about the impact of things like hurricanes, but these days they have other concerns, namely the price they can get for their catch.

"This ... economy that we are in is not really promoting the sale of our product," Lessard says. "Lobster is going from eight dollars a pound to three dollars a pound. We are basically in survival mode at the present time, but it is still a wonderful way to make a living."

As a mate hooks the buoys and throws the line in the winches, the traps break onto the surface. As they are hoisted on deck the captain smiles at what he is seeing. "We got some nice lobsters today, some grandes," he says. Video Watch the skipper at work on the water »

Lessard navigates his boat along his strings of traps as his crew pulls them, repeating the motion some 480 times. Two dolphins play off the bow.

"This is the most beautiful office that anyone could have in the world," the lobster fisherman says. "If you feel the calling, there is no better way to make a living. It's something I've wanted to do since I was a child, and I'm blessed to have been able to do what I wanted to do in life, and have the freedom to do it.

"I hope my family can do it for another hundred years."

As the afternoon wears on, the traps rise out of the ocean and fall back to the seabed, and a constant flow of lobster fills up the boat's holding tanks. The catch seems to be better than expected.

"Sometimes if you are lucky, it's better than being good. And if you're good and lucky, that's even better," Lessard jokes.

With the last trap dropped back into the water, Lessard and the crew of the Mystic I head back to the dock, where they will place the day's catch onto the scales to see how good the sea has been to them.

"Today we caught 476 pounds. I didn't expect to do this well with the phase of the moon," Lessard says.

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Tomorrow morning the captain will rise again in the darkness and answer the calling that he and his family have heeded for generations.

"My family is out here, and I plan on being out here and joining them someday," Lessard says, "although I would like it to be a long time from now."

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