Lobster hunters probably won’t have to dive very deep, nor roam very far to catch their limit during Florida’s two-day lobster miniseason, which opens at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and closes at midnight Thursday.
“The lack of hurricanes and otherwise calm winds this summer have kept a lot of lobsters in shallow water, and it’s shaping up to be an easy year for divers and snorkelers to catch lobsters,” research scientist Tom Matthews of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon wrote in an email. “The early warm weather this spring may have allowed some faster growth, and there may be relatively more legal-sized lobsters out there.”
Statewide lobster landings data show trappers, divers, bully netters and others harvested between 5.5 million and 6 million pounds during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons — the highest in the past 10 years. However, those numbers are down from the peak levels of the mid-1990s. Matthews said the most likely reason is a lobster virus first observed in 2000 when the harvest dropped dramatically. He said the virus is not transmitted from lobsters to humans.
“It’s still out there. Why things have gotten better the last two years, I’m not sure,” Matthews said in a phone interview. “There are still problems in our environment.”
He added that scientists’ measurements of larval abundance in the animals’ Florida Bay nursery grounds over the past 10 years have stayed about the same. Most of the larvae originates in the Caribbean and rides ocean currents north to settle in the Keys.
While bug hunters strive to fulfill their dreams of gourmet seafood glory, marine law enforcement officers will try to make sure they stay safe and don’t take too many or undersized lobsters.
“Our main goal is for individuals to enjoy themselves, harvest the right amount of lobsters, go home safely and enjoy the resource,” said Jorge Pino, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman.
Pino said his agency and other law-enforcement partners are primarily concerned with “safety, safety, safety” — especially violations concerning the required red-and-white diver-down flag.
“Coming way too close to a diver-down flag, or the captain of the vessel keeps the flag up when they’re moving from location to location,” Pino said.
He said FWC officers in marked and unmarked boats will dive alongside lobster hunters to ensure they obey size and bag limits, and specially trained lobster-sniffing dogs will be used to detect illegal catches hidden in a boat or vehicle. Most lobster violations are second-degree misdemeanors that carry fines up to $500 and six months in jail.
Pino also urged scuba divers who haven’t been in the water for a long time to practice their skills before Wednesday. Reef Ministries will conduct a free scuba refresher course from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the City of Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex, 501 Seabreeze Blvd.
Underwater hunting experts such as Pompano Beach’s Jim Higgins and Islamorada’s Eric Billips said the most successful bug catchers use an unhurried, low-key approach. Move slowly, both men said, and gently tickle the lobster’s tail with a stick or snare until it walks out of its cave.