Florida Spiny Lobster
Diving for Delicious Decapoda
Diving for Delicious Decapoda
One of my favorite things growing up was to go skin diving (snorkeling) for lobster each summer. Back then we did not have GPS. We pick a promising spot on the map, navigated there via compass, and then slowly pulled snorkelers through the water using 20’ of rope. When we found a lobster we took a deep breath, swam down, and grabbed the spiny bug with a gloved hand. Good times... Needless to say much has changed since then.
Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)
As you can probably guess, the spiny lobster is covered with spines, including two large “horns” above the eye stalks. There are a few color varieties but they all have spots. Since they have no claws they are technically not a true lobster. What they do have in addition to the thorny body is a large pair of antennae that are longer than the body, and covered with forward pointing spines. These large antennae are used to sense and, if necessary, block predator’s advancements. At the other end is the prize and final defense; a yummy and powerful tail. The tail is smooth and has swimmerets on the underside (one swimmeret = male, two swimmerets = female). Female lobsters carry their eggs under their abdomen/tail. Eggs are an orange, yellow, brown, or red mass. If you find a lobster with eggs just leave it alone.
Slipper lobster (Scyllarides latus)
Slipper lobsters can be found in all warm oceans and seas. Regardless of their common name, they are not actually lobsters. They are closely related to spiny lobsters and furry lobsters. Slipper lobsters are instantly recognizable by their short wide antennae and I grew up calling them shovel-nose or Spanish lobster. These are edible, and some even prefer them other the Spiny Lobster.
- Not covered by Spiny lobster rules
- Unlawful to take if carrying eggs
- Slipper lobster are slow growing so please consider leaving smaller ones
Often called Mini-Season, Sport Season is a magical two day season only for recreational hunters/fishermen/divers. The two-day Sport Season is always the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. I have heard that over 50% of the recreational harvest of lobster are taken in these first two days (have not validated this number). This is also one of the craziest (dangerous) times to be diving in south Florida and especially the Florida Keys. A few accidents and deaths occur each year. This is not surprising when you learn that many boaters and divers have not been on the water since last year’s Sport Season (or the year before).
The Regular Season runs from August 6 through March 31. Needless to say there are a lot fewer lobster after the Sport Season, but there are still lobster. It is not uncommon for the female lobster to have eggs early in the season (off-limits) and thus be available in the Fall after they have dropped their eggs. The end of March can be busy if the weather has warmed up. Commercial lobstering takes place during the Regular Season. Most of the commercial lobstering is done with traps and you should be aware that it is a felony to molest, damage, or take lobster from traps in state or federal waters.
How to Find Lobster
Finding lobster may be the hardest part of Lobstering. The spiny lobster can be found from shallows down to 300', from North Carolina down to Brazil. Lobsters seem to like an area with any reasonable cover such as reefs, sponges, bridge pilings, piers, limestone holes, etc. Marinas are often full of lobster but it is unlawful to dive in most marinas. Next, understand lobster have a large number of predators including octopuses, nurse sharks, triggerfish, turtles, dolphins, stingrays, and of course man. They are also nocturnal and skittish. A lobster will never be standing out in the open. Lobster will usually find a nice hole or ledge to back its body in to and keep its antennae out. If it is a good hiding spot, and space permitting, there may be several lobsters taking refuse. You should be looking the antennae. It's also a good idea to look under deeper coral and ledges. If and when you do find a lobster approach it calmly. You do not want to alarm it. When threatened, lobsters can kick their yummy tails rapidly and swim backwards surprisingly quick, much quicker than any diver.
How to Catch Lobster
If you have an experienced lobster hunter dive buddy ask them to show you the ropes. Also, many shops will host a 'lobstering seminar' combined with an equipment sale. However, where you dive will determine the most common situations, so talk to the local shops about what to expect, the best approach, and specialty gear.
Once you have found a bug the fun begins. Relax and take a moment to size up the situation. First, consider if the lobster is even big enough. Next, look for eggs. Remember, absolutely no egg-bearing lobster can be kept, so please leave them in peace. If the lobster is a decent size and doesn't have eggs start checking out its den. You want to consider your access options and the lobster's exit options. It's also wise to see what else may be in the hole. It is not uncommon to find other lobster, crabs, sea urchins, eels, and or other fish sharing the space. Ideally the lobster would be in a tube. Then you could just place a net on the back and just spook 'em from the front causing it to swim in to the net. Worst case is you spook the lobster back in to a giant 'cave'. As long as you don't spook the lobster they tend to remain 'available'. One diver can hunt while the buddy takes a lookout position slightly above and ready to assist.
Once you have control of the lobster you must immediately check for eggs and for minimum size. If the lobster has eggs or is too small release it immediately, preferably near its original location. If the bug is legal securely bag it, but do not harm it! I always recheck my lobster after the dive. If it's my boat, I check every single lobster on the boat ASAP.
Spiny Lobster Measurement
Spiny Lobster must have a minimum carapace length of greater than 3-inches and the measurement must take place in the water. The carapace is measured beginning at the forward edge between the rostral horns, excluding any soft tissue, and proceeding along the middle to the rear edge of the carapace.
Crawfish (Lobster) License
Each hunter must have a valid Florida saltwater fishing licenes AND the additional $5 crawfish permit. These can be purchased at any tax collector's office, most tackle shops, marine supply stores, online and or over the phone (888-FISH-FLORIDA). Of course some locations will be extremely busy and may even run out of the forms. Do not wait until the last minute.
How to Clean a Spiny Lobster
My Favorite Recipe - Grill Lobster
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large shallots, peeled and quartered
4 large garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
black pepper, freshly ground
4 spiny lobster, split in half lengthwise
Combine first 6 ingredients in processor and blend until almost smooth. Spread 1 heaping teaspoon seasoned butter over each lobster tail. In a small saucepan melt remaining seasoned butter; keep warm. Grill lobster tails, shell side down, 6 minutes. Turnover and grill until meat is just opaque in center, about 2 minutes. Serve with melted butter.