Being on or under the aqua blue water, the spiny lobster sport season i
s one of the best parts of living or even visiting Florida.
One of the most celebrated outdoor events of the year, a two-day sport lobster season arrives in late July annually that attracts floods of scuba divers and snorkelers in their quest for the tasty sweet lobster. It’s projected that as many as 50,000 divers invade the state’s reefs during this frenzied 48 hours. Hunters in boats big and small revel in this adrenaline-packed activity.
Closely regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, scores of law enforcement officers with federal and local agencies patrol the waters to ensure that lobsters were caught in legal areas, and were of legal size (the carapace length must be at least three inches that it reaches in about two years).
Eight days later the commercial lobster season launches and recreational harvesting continues throughout the commercial season that runs through March 31.
Unlike their cousin the large pinchered Maine lobster, warm water loving spiny lobsters are a mottled color crayfish type crustacean without large claws. With five pair of legs, the spiny lobsters’ most obvious feature is its forward leaning spine. It has a long pair of antennae and spine-covered carapace from which it takes its name. All of its tasty meat is in the tail, which cooks up nicely on the grill.
The most prevalent Florida spiny lobster is the Caribbean variety or the Panulirus argus. Easily identifiable, the crustacean has a brownish gray striped body with yellow spots on its tail. Reaching 23 inches or more, they can attain a weight of 12 pounds and its tail sections surely rivals those from Maine’s cold-water lobsters. In Florida waters, when the commercial season opens on Aug. 6, the recreational daily bag limit becomes six per person statewide.
But be forewarned the rock lobster has a hard and spiny exoskeleton that requires thick gloves for those who wish to try to snare them off the sea floor. The lobsters can be found under heads of coral, in holes on reefs, under ledges, and in nooks and crannies of artificial reefs and shipwrecks. The spiny lobster is nocturnal, hiding under cover during the day and coming out to feed at night on crabs, shellfish, mussels, worms, sea urchins and sand dollars.
The harvesting technique contrasts greatly from that of the Maine lobstermen who have been “eco-friendly” long before it became fashionable. Cold water Maine lobsters have been procured in the same careful way they have for over 125 years — by hand, one trap at a time — thus protecting the quality of the product and the marine environment.
The crystal clear waters of the Florida Keys are best known as lobster rich, but some of the best lobstering occurs on the shallow inshore and deeper offshore reefs for divers headed out of Port Canaveral and Sebastian Inlet. While they may not be a plentiful in numbers as in the Keys, this region’s catch are larger, averaging two to three pounds with upwards of six to eight pounders common.
Without the protection of large pinchers, the spiny lobster species relies on speed as its best defense. The multiple segmented tail allows the spiny lobster to curl it up, then use it as a propelling force to drive backward through the water and away from danger, or into your waiting net. As part of their growing life cycle, spiny lobsters molt their shells numerous times throughout the year, and then eat their shells for the nutritional value. Once lobsters attain a length of approximately 8 - 9 inches, they have reached sexual maturity. When lobster fishing, any females captured carrying eggs on their underbellies are off limits.
Florida provides much of the nation’s commercial spiny lobster landings, making it the state’s most valuable fishery, raking in about $24 million each year thanks to recreational lobster harvesting. Lobster divers must have a saltwater fishing license and an additional lobster stamp which costs $5. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 280,000 lobster stamps were sold for the 2016 season. FWC staff estimated recreational divers harvested a collective 1.5 to 2 million pounds between the first day of mini-season and Labor Day last year.
If you’re new to the spiny hunter’s game, here are some tips. You won’t find a lobster out in the open, especially during the day when they hole up inside reef crevices and refuse to budge. Look for antennae waving out from holes in the reef, or bring a light to peer in crevices. And look for eels, which tend to like the same reef crevices as lobster.
Think like a lobster. Lobster retreat from danger by moving backward. Use this knowledge to your advantage. You will need a measuring device and a mesh bag with a top which is easy to open and easy to keep closed. Rather than grabbing at them by hand, successful hunters use tickle sticks and other tools to coax the animals into backing into their nets or snares. A tickle stick is a fiberglass stick about two feet in length which can be inserted under a ledge or coral head to “tickle” the lobster from behind and trick it into coming out into the open where it can be grabbed on the sea floor, measured and put into a net.
As for divers, the red flag with the white diagonal stripe is a warning that divers are underwater. Boaters are required to remain more than 300 feet away from a boat with a dive flag in open water, and divers must remain that close to their vessel when underwater.
The tasty sweet meat freshly caught from the aqua blue shimmering water is one of Florida’s most delightful seafood treats.