Florida’s largest undeclared state holiday — the annual two-day lobster miniseason — arrives Wednesday and Thursday. Thousands of hopeful scuba divers, snorkelers and bully netters will crowd the state’s waterways, vying for neighborhood barbecue supremacy.
Their attempts to tickle, snare and net a limit of bugs will happen under the watchful eyes of hundreds of marine law enforcement officers trying to keep them safe and conserve marine resources.
“We’re canceling days off,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino said. “We’re having extra patrols assigned to specific areas. Our undercover officers will be working at the ramps and underwater. We ask for help from different marine law enforcement agencies as well as the Coast Guard and they step up to the plate tremendously.”
Lobster divers will not see any major changes in the law from previous years, except that they now are allowed to use an approved diver-down buoy in place of the customary diver-down flag. Divers are required to keep within a certain distance of their flag or buoy and boaters must stay well clear.
Bag limits are 12 lobsters per person per day everywhere in Florida except the Keys and Biscayne National Park, where the limit is six. Even though park officials are considering eliminating the miniseason in park waters as part of their fishery management plan, that won’t happen this season. As always, harvest is prohibited in the Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Lobster Sanctuary. (Visit www.nps.gov/bisc for boundaries and more information.)
Lobsters must measure greater than three inches on the carapace, or head. They may not be speared, and taking egg-bearing females is prohibited.
Preseason scouting reports indicate the potential for a big haul.
Tom Matthews, an associate research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon, says there’s no need to go deep.
“The sport divers are seeing a lot of lobsters in the bay and near shore — not as many on the reef,” Matthews said.
“If we had a tropical storm, that might move lobsters around. But we’ve had such unbelievably calm weather that lobsters are enjoying themselves near shore and not moving very much.”
However, the overall South Florida lobster population is entering a 15-year slump, according to Matthews. Annual landings have dropped 30 percent since 2000 from more than seven million pounds to about five million pounds. Scientists blame a lobster virus that afflicts mainly juveniles for the decline. The virus is not transmitted from lobsters to humans.
Matthews said it would be a good idea to slow down the catch rate in order to grow older, larger lobsters that produce more eggs. This could be accomplished by changing the minimum harvest size or creating more sanctuaries.
Divers who harvest large lobsters may enter them in one of two contests — the Miami Bugging Spiny Lobster Tournament put on by Sunset Tavern/Deli Lane in South Miami or BugFest-by-the-Sea in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Both are awarding a $500 top prize.
For those who can’t make it out on the water for miniseason, the regular harvest season for both divers and commercial trappers runs from Aug. 6 through March 31.