Broward County lobster-catching guru Jim “Chiefy” Mathie and two companions caught a total of 12 lobsters in a day of scuba diving in waters 45 to 55 feet deep off Hillsboro Inlet last week. The divers released two of the largest because they were females with eggs, and the 10 they kept were scattered all along the second reef in low-relief areas.
“We’re picking up onesies and twosies — no big clusters of them,” said Mathie, a retired division chief with the Deerfield Beach Fire Department. “A couple weeks ago, we got our limit. You can see it’s thinning out. It’s slowing down.”
With one week left until Florida’s lobster harvest season closes March 31, recreational divers will have to look high and low to score a daily bag limit of six per person. Divers and commercial trappers have kept up intense efforts all season long — aided by an unseasonably calm and warm winter and spurred by a recently developed market for live spiny lobsters in China that has pushed prices as high as $20 per pound. Those who miss out on the last few days of the harvest will have to wait until the annual two-day statewide recreational miniseason July 30-31 to stock the freezer.
Mathie, 60, who has authored popular books on lobster diving and spearfishing, has some tips for catching the stragglers before the season ends.
“This time of year, go deeper — 75 to 85 feet,” he advised. “Sometimes, we’ll run the 100-foot edge. I’m looking for little juvenile fish, nooks and crannies, a lot of thin, patchy reef — not the high reef. I really don’t want to see something 5 feet high. I want it to be an active reef with a lot of fish — goatfish, porkfish, surgeonfish, lionfish.”
Mathie and his dive buddies carry spearguns along with their lobster snares — bagging some large reef fish to supplement their bugs. A couple of weeks ago, Mathie shot a 40-pound kingfish.
“We’re making that transition from lobstering to spearfishing,” he said.
If you’ve never caught lobster before, today’s thin pickings mean now is not a good time to start. Mathie recommends reading up on the sport and attending preseason seminars such as Lauderdale-By-The-Sea’s Bug Fest.
Even for experts, catching lobster by snare or net and tickler stick is not as easy today as in the heydays of the late 1990s. Since 2000, annual commercial landings — considered a good gauge of plenitude — have fallen from the 5-million-to-7-million-pound range to about the 3-million-to-5 1/2-million-pound range.
Tom Matthews, an associate research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon, says a lobster virus first detected in 2000 is a prime suspect in the loss of up to one-third of juvenile bugs over the past 13 years. Scientists from Virginia’s Old Dominion University and the University of Florida are trying to get a handle on it, but where it came from and how it spreads remain a mystery. The virus is not harmful to people.
Matthews says another problem is the loss of the lobsters’ juvenile habitat in Florida Bay, where algae blooms years ago killed the sponges they use as nurseries. The bay hasn’t suffered any recent major blooms, but the sponges take a while to recover.
When young lobsters reach legal size — (the carapace or head measuring more than three inches) — many are trapped or caught as soon as the harvest season opens in Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay. The bugs that make it as far as Miami-Dade or Broward coastal waters are survivors that managed to escape a gauntlet of traps, bully nets and tickler sticks to take refuge on the reefs. Occasionally, shore divers get lucky when hurricanes or low-pressure systems prompt lobsters to march in long lines close to the beach. But that didn’t happen this season.
All these factors contribute to the difficulty of harvesting a lobster dinner along the southeast Florida coast — especially near the end of the season.
Said Mathie: “This has been a good year — not a great year — for lobster. It’s been fairly steady. We’ve come back with our limit a bunch of times. Even with the lack of storms, we’ve done OK.”
For tips on lobstering and spearfishing in Southeast Florida, visit www.chiefy.net.