County expects 30,000 to hunt bugs for mini-seasonBy Steve Estes
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 people are expected to begin invading the Keys this weekend to take advantage of the annual lobster mini-season recreational season.
Mini-season is scheduled for July 24 and 25 this year and begins at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and ends at midnight Thursday.
“Anyone who plans to participate in catching lobster in Monroe County during the two-day season should make sure to familiarize themselves with both state law and local ordinances in the Florida Keys,” says Dep. Becky Herrin, public information officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department.
Herrin says that the sheriff’s deputies will be out patrolling extra hours both at boat ramps and on the water during the two-day sport season.
“Anyone caught with illegal lobster will be charged accordingly,” she said.
Penalties for illegal lobster include significant fines and possibly jail time.
Sheriff’s deputies have already begun nabbing lobster hunters unmindful of the rules. One hunter in Key West was arrested Tuesday for lobster out of season and spearing lobster.
Divers may enter the water at dawn Wednesday and Thursday as night diving in Monroe County is not allowed during the two-day sport season. Divers must be out of the water by dark. Only bully netters are allowed to get lobster at night. Night is considered one hour before official sunrise to one hour after official sunset.
Possession of lobster before Wednesday is a violation. Possession of lobster on the water is a violation after Thursday until regular season opens Aug. 6.
Divers may not spear lobster. All lobster tails must be wrung after the boat has docked. Possession of wrung tails on the water is a violation.
The daily bag limit for lobster is six per day per licensed hunter. All hunters must have a valid saltwater fishing license with a crawfish endorsement. Divers cannot possess the two-day limit of twelve lobsters until Thursday.
In Monroe County, including Marathon and Islamorada it is illegal to dive for lobster, including snorkeling, within 300 feet of developed residential or commercial shoreline, and in all navigable canals as well as all public and private marinas. Those prohibitions are in place between July 23 and July 26 and during the first five days of regular season Aug. 6 through 10.
Lobster may not be taken off artificial habitat, also commonly referred to as casitas. Lobster may also not be taken inside the city limits of Layton.
Several special protection areas in the local area are also closed to lobster hunting year round, not just during mini-season. Looe Key reef, the Looe Key patch reef and Newfound Harbor are among those.
All recreational hunters must have a diver down flag posted in a prominent place. Law enforcement personnel usually insist that be at the highest point on the boat. Swimmers using the shore as a base should attach the diver down flag to themselves in some fashion. Boat drivers are required to slow to idle speed within 100 yards of a dive flag.
Divers must have a measuring device on them while in the water. Lobster must be measured in the water and returned unharmed if not of sufficient size.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the lobster’s carapace, that hard shell area between the eyes to the beginning of the tail, must be more than three inches in length. After the head is separated from the tail, the tail must be more than five-and-a-half inches in length.
All recreational harvested lobster must remain in whole condition on the water, which has been interpreted in the past as at the dock as well. Tails can only be separated on land.
Monroe County routinely imports extra law enforcement personnel during lobster mini-season to handle the rapid influx of visitors.
“During the two-day sport season, there will be more boats and trailers on the roadway and more traffic in general,” says Herrin. “So please drive safely.”
“Pay attention to those around you, be patient and don’t pass in no passing zones,” she said.
Herrin also reminds drivers and boaters that driving while drinking is illegal. “Drunk boating is also illegal and our officers will be watching for this dangerous behavior on the water as well as on the roadways of the county.”
“We enjoy all the visitors here in the Keys during the two-day sport season,” said Herrin. “But we want to make sure everyone is aware of the law, and is behaving in a responsible, safe manner.”
Mini-season also can be a precursor to the success or failure of the commercial season, which starts 10 days later.
Last season, recreational harvesters reported decreased catch, with lobster holes harder to find than in year’s past.
That was nearly the same story for the commercial lobster season last year when catch was way down and many trappers pulled their gear weeks in advance of season’s end.
The existence of mini-season has long been a contentious issue between local business owners and residents.
The former sees the event as a much-needed economic shot in the arm during what is traditionally a very slow time of the year.
The latter habitually claims that the influx of recreational divers creates more stress on the Keys’ fragile ecosystem, and the resident’s fragile psyche than the money they bring to the island chain.
For those with questions about min-season regulations they may call FWC at 305-289-2320 or visit www.myfwc.gov.