Thursday, July 5, 2007

Lobster Mini-Season

Ah, Yes... the sweet smell of July in Florida! For many of us die-hard Floridians, April, May, and June are more than just the Spring and beginning of the rainy season - it's a time of frozen food and a longing for mini-season.

Florida's Spiny Lobster Season officially runs from August 6th to March 31st.

So, April traditionally begins a time of sadness for most Florida divers since it marks the end of lobster season and the beginning of digging into the freezer for the remnants of bounty from days gone by. In fact, I know divers who braved the 4-6-foot seas of March 31st in order to get one more zipper bag of lobster into the freezer before the great lobster famine began. (Yours truly included.) I found myself actually doing the math to figure out how often my wife and I could enjoy a lobster dinner before the next opportunity for fresh lobster would be upon us.

Luckily, Florida Wildlife has found it in their hearts again this year to maintain the two-day sport season, or what we locals call 'Mini-Season'. Traditionally, mini-season is the last Wednesday and Thursday of July (July 25 & 26th this year). Mini-Season is an event in itself.

I have a buddy here in Fort Lauderdale that actually negotiated with his employer to have the last Wednesday and Thursday of July off from work EVERY year. Further, he negotiated them as regular paid days off - not as part of his vacation days, sick days, or otherwise. In fact, he refers to them as his 'High Holy Days'. His boss happens also to be a diver, which may explain why they don't find him in the office during these days either. Needless to say, we Floridians take our diving very seriously.

As most Floridians know, the last week of July is traditionally a bad time to go to the Florida Keys. Every yahoo in the tri-state area with a boat and a crawfish permit is out on the water from daylight to dusk on both days. By the way, a 'crawfish permit' is the state sticker on a Florida fishing license that enables you to try to catch lobster. Notice I said 'try'. It's an art as much as it is a science.

Unfortunately, many of these folks are once-a-year divers and there are almost always fatalities - on the road and in the water. The Florida Keys are well-prepared for the event, which brings in millions in tourist dollars to the Florida economy each year. For me, I stick to the reef I know the best - Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, and Pompano Beach. I use the off-lobster months to scout new areas, add secret spots into my GPS, and study how the lobster are reacting to various water conditions and temperatures. Many of my buddies and I spearfish year round, but we've always got an eagle eye open for good lobster habitat. For example, just the other day we came across a spot that.. oh wait.. if I tell you, it won't be a secret anymore. Nevermind.

Mini-Season is a short two-day sport season when ONLY sportsmen are permitted to catch lobster. Commercial lobster boats and traps cannot begin harvesting until the official season begins on August 6th. The idea is that sportsmen have 2 days of unhindered lobster hunting before the commercial guys come in and pick up the lion's share of the bounty.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against commercial fishermen. I think that everyone has a right to make a living. However, I do feel that there are, as in all things, a few bad apples that ruin it for everyone else. Poaching, overcatching, and ignoring limits hurt all of us in the long run. As far as I'm concerned, we all have a responsibility to protect the environment that has obviously been so good to us and continues to support us. As such, I've developed some lobstering rules to live by...

Branon's Top 10 Lobstering Rules:
1. Always have a fishing license with lobster permit, and an approved measuring device. You never know when that megalobster will be staring you in the face.

2. Never take more lobster than you need or intend to actually eat - and certainly no more than the legal bag limit (6 per person per day).

3. Check a lobster as closely as possible BEFORE you attempt to catch it - if it looks too small it probably is. Also, if you see eggs or the tell-tale sign of eggs (curled tail with cleaning claspers in 'hold' mode) don't disturb the lobster. If you disturb it, it will just be that more jumpy next year when it's bigger. :)

4. If you inadvertently catch a lobster that is short or that has eggs, promptly let it go with as little stress and inconvenience to the lobster as possible. I generally try to even point in back in the direction of its hole so it's not out in the open an easy prey for other predators.

5. REALLY good lobsterers will even release the lobsters with the tar spot on their bellies (black spot on the underside near the tail that looks literally like road tar) since it means that the lobster is female and has already been fertilized, but has not yet dropped her eggs.

6. Minimize the trauma to ANY lobster you catch. If you rip all the legs off trying to get it out of a hole and it turns out to be short or have eggs, you've just signed a little lobster death warrant for not only that lobster, but all the future lobster it might have mothered along the way. Lobster Loops, as they're called, are fantastic. I've actually caught lobster with a loop that never realize they were caught until I was holding them in my hands measuring them. Slow, deliberate finesse is key - again, lobstering is an art. Swimming at full speed headlong into a reef with both hands grabbing at a lobster isn't just stupid, but also you are likely to damage the reef, lose the lobster, and probably damage yourself in the process.

7. Measure EVERY lobster you catch EVERY time - UNDER WATER WHEN YOU CATCH IT! 'Barely legal' is still legal, but do you REALLY want to be the guy on the boat with the shortest lobster? Size matters, no matter what GQ or Cosmo says these days.

8. Re-Measure EVERY lobster when you bring it onto the boat. This is your last chance to toss it back before the lobster is too traumatized to make it in the wild... and before Florida Wildlife, the Sheriff's Office, or the Coast Guard can write you a nasty citation for undersized lobster and start confiscating your stuff.

9. Bathtubs, washing machines, and concrete blocks should be properly disposed of - and not sunk in the open ocean to create 'lobster hotels' or other artificial habitat. In addition to being an environmental issue, there's also a HUGE fine involved - even if you're just diving on someone else's artificial habitat.

10. Leave lobster traps alone! Taking lobster from a trap is Stealing! In addition, there is a VERY HEFTY fine involved, including possible jail time. You wouldn't want someone to steal from you at your job, why would you do it to someone else?!

Okay... here's a bonus rule:
11. If the hole is big enough for a lobster to live in, chances are it's big enough for an eel or other critter to live in as well. Before you go sticking your hand (or your arm) into a hole, you might double check to see if anyone else might be at home. Yes, moray eels bite and they're not usually very polite about it. Just ask my buddy, Three-Finger Mike!

Here is the official information from the state website regarding lobster season and bag limits:

"The spiny lobster sport season will fall on July 25th and 26th for 2007. The bag limits are 6 per person per day for Monroe County and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person per day for the rest of Florida.

The possession limit on the water is equal to the daily bag limit, and off the water is equal to the daily bag limit on the first day, and double the daily bag limit on the second day. Possession limits are enforced on and off the water.

Spiny lobster has a minimum size limit that must be larger than 3" carapace, measured in the water. A reminder that possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times, and night diving is prohibited in Monroe County (only during the sport season). A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit are needed for harvest.

Regular spiny lobster season is August 6 through March 31. The bag limit is 6 per person per day. Harvest of lobster is prohibited in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the sport season. Harvest is also prohibited during both the 2-day sport season and regular season in Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and no take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "

Happy Lobstering!

All the best,


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