The 'Spiny Lobster' of South Florida
by Local Diver Robert Ronec
Anyone who's been diving in South Florida for any amount of time will have seen their fair share of that most delicious sea creature, the Spiny Lobster, and at $7.99 a pound and up, it's with good reason that many of us decide it would be great if we could take a few of them home with us. Catching lobsters isn't difficult, but there are some tips, tricks, special gear, and laws that you should know about before giving it a try. We'll get to that, but first I think it's a good idea when hunting to know a thing or two about your quarry, so let's start with some interesting and potentially useful information about the lobsters themselves.
About Spiny Lobsters
Spiny lobsters, also known as rock lobsters are a family (Palinuridae) of about 45 species of achelate crustaceans, in the Decapoda Reptantia. Spiny lobsters are also called crayfish, sea crayfish or crawfish. Although they superficially resemble true lobsters in terms of overall shape, and having a hard carapace and exoskeleton, the two groups are not closely related. Spiny lobsters can be easily distinguished from true lobsters by their very long, thick, spiny antennae, and by their complete lack of claws (chelae); true lobsters have much smaller antennae and claws on the first three pairs of legs, with the first being particularly enlarged. Like true lobsters, however, spiny lobsters are edible and are an economically significant food source; they are the biggest food export of the Bahamas.
Spiny lobsters are found in almost all warm seas, including the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea, but are particularly common in Australasia, where they are referred to commonly as crayfish or sea crayfish (Jasus novaehollandiae and Jasus edwardsii), and South Africa (Jasus lalandii). A new species, Palinurus barbarae was described in 2006.
The largest spiny lobster on record was over 1 m (3 ft) long and weighed over 11.8 kg (26 lb).
Spiny lobsters tend to live in crevices of rocks and coral reefs, only occasionally venturing out at night to seek snails, clams, crabs, sea urchins or carrion to eat. Sometimes, they migrate en masse, in long files of lobsters across the sea floor. Potential predators may be deterred from eating spiny lobsters by a loud screech made by the antennae of the spiny lobsters rubbing against a smooth part of the exoskeleton. Spiny lobsters usually exhibit social habit by being together. However recent studies indicate that healthy lobsters move away from infected ones leaving the diseased lobsters to fend for themselves.
Harvesting the Spiny Lobster
Lobster Bag Limits
The state of Florida has a 2-day lobster mini-season. You must have a saltwater fishing license to take lobsters. See the State of Florida web site for further information, including current costs and where you can obtain
the license. Or call 1-888-FISH-FLORIDA (347-4356).
Generally speaking, there are only three “must haves” for lobster hunting, a gauge to make sure the “bugs” are legal size, a bag to put them in if they are, and proper identification so the state Environmental Police don’t think you’re a poacher, slap a hefty fine on you, and haul your gear off to the pokey. Of course, there are plenty of accessories available that might make things easier or more enjoyable for you too, like a tickle stick, and banding tool. You may also want to bring along a cooler and some ice, to keep them cool, moist, and alive on the way home.
Since you can only legally keep lobsters that fall within a certain size range, you must have a measuring tool set to the appropriate minimum and maximum size. Legal length refers to the measurement of the cephalothorax (body) from the rear of the eye socket to the rear of the body shell parallel to the centerline as shown below. All lobsters measuring less than the minimum legal carapace length (i.e. the gauge distance is longer than the lobster’s shell) or more than the maximum must immediately be returned to the waters from which they were taken. All lobsters must be measured immediately, so it’s a good idea to keep your gauge in an accessible location. A retractor is a good option, as is attaching it to your catch bag.
Assuming you’ve caught a lobster you can keep, it’s a safe bet you’ll want to take it home with you without having to wrestle with it all the way back to shore. There are any number of catch bags that work well for holding your lobsters while you dive, ranging from small foldable mesh bags to large spring loaded contraptions that can be operated with one hand. Which one is right for you will depend on both how many lobsters you reasonably expect to catch, and on whether you will be diving from shore or a boat. Obviously, the more lobsters you hope to catch on a given dive, the bigger the bag you’ll need to hold them. Large bags equal large drag though, so if you’ll be swimming any significant distance (back to shore, for example), you may want to compromise by bringing a more modestly sized bag... although some folks prefer to dive with larger tanks or doubles when hunting so they can stay out long enough to get their limit and still have enough air to make it home.
Once in the bag though, lobsters may fight with one another, and it’s not uncommon to find a number of severed claws in the bag after a productive hunt. Putting some seaweed in the bag with the lobsters will give them some feeling of privacy, and may make them less likely to maim one another. If it becomes a problem for you, you may wish to bring a banding tool along so you can bind the claws before you put them in the bag.
The “tickle stick” is the most popular lobstering tool in our area, as snaring and spearing aren’t allowed. It’s essentially a stick, sometimes with a slight bend in one end, that’s used to coax (not drag) a lobster out of its hiding place. Essentially, the idea is to slip the stick past the lobster, and give it a touch on the tail so that it’ll think something’s in the hole behind it. That should convince it to come out so it can be grabbed. Tickle sticks made of fiberglass or plastic are for sale at many shops, but aren’t necessarily any more effective than one made at home from available materials. I’ve even seen a straightened coat hanger used effectively. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked every bit as well as the one I got for $15.
Where to Look
From our earlier reading, we know that lobsters like to hide out during the day, so obviously you’ll have the best luck finding lobsters if you look for places they’d like to hide. If you see a large rock, or a pile of boulders, look carefully around the base, in any cracks, and in any recesses. A good light might be helpful. If you keep a keen eye out, you’ll often notice a pair of antennae poking out of a hole, and there’s almost always a lobster attached to them. Look under everything. Cuts in ledges, bits of wreckage, even a discarded tire might be home to a large lobster.
There’s also a relationship between the popularity of a site and the number of lobsters you can expect to find. The more divers that have been there, the fewer legal keepers will remain. If you go to sites that are less accessible to divers due to inconvenient entry, a lack of parking, or even a lack of people talking about it, the odds of finding big lobsters increases significantly. If it’s a spot that’s difficult to get a lobster boat to, so much the better. Some of the best lobster takes I've had were on boat dives that weren't accessible from shore. Don’t think that means you need to look in deep water though… plenty of lobsters are caught in water so shallow you can hardly get your tank under water. Still, a longer surface swim to a rocky area will often provide better results.
Don’t be afraid to stay close to the bottom… you’ll find far more lobsters poking into holes with a light than you will when cruising several feet above the rocks. Get your buoyancy nailed, and get low!
How to tell if it's legal size
68B-24.003 Minimum Size Limits.
(1) No person shall harvest or possess any spiny lobster with a carapace measurement of 3 inches or less or, if the tail is
separated from the body, a tail measurement less than 5 1/2 inches not including any protruding muscle tissue, except as may be
provided in subsection (3) of this rule.
(2) The carapace (head, body, or front section) measurement shall be determined by beginning at the anteriormost edge (front)
of the groove between the horns directly above the eyes, then proceeding along the middorsal line (middle of the back) to the rear
edge of the top part of the carapace, excluding any translucent membrane. The tail (segmented portion) shall be measured
lengthwise along the top middorsal line (middle of the back) of the entire tail until the rearmost extremity is reached; provided, the
tail measurement shall be conducted with the tail in a flat straight position with the tip of the tail closed.
(3) The holder of a valid crawfish license or trap number, lobster trap certificates, and a valid saltwater products license issued
by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may harvest and possess, while on the water, undersized spiny lobster not
exceeding 50 per boat and 1 per trap aboard each boat if used exclusively for luring, decoying, or otherwise attracting noncaptive
spiny lobster into traps. Such undersized spiny lobster shall be kept alive, while in possession, in a shaded continuously circulating
live well with pump capacity to totally replace the water at least every 8 minutes and large enough to provide at least 3/4 gallon of
seawater per lobster. All undersized lobster so maintained shall be released to the water alive and unharmed immediately upon
leaving the trap lines and prior to 1 hour after official sunset.
(4) Spiny lobster harvested in Florida waters shall remain in a whole condition at all times while on or below the waters of the
state and the practice of wringing or separating the tail (segmented portion) from the body (carapace and head) section is prohibited
on state waters. Possession of spiny lobster tails that have been wrung or separated, on or below the waters of the state, is
prohibited, unless the spiny lobster are being imported pursuant to Rule 68B-24.0045, F.A.C., or were harvested outside the waters
of the state and the wringing or separation was pursuant to a federal permit allowing such wringing or separation. In the latter case,
the federal permit shall be present and accompany any wrung or separated spiny lobster tails while possessed on or below the
waters of the state.
(5) No person shall harvest or attempt to harvest spiny lobster by diving unless he possesses, while in the water, a measuring
device capable of being used to perform the carapace measurement described in subsection (2). Each measurement performed by
such a person shall occur in the water.
Specific Authority Art. IV, Sec. 9, Fla. Const. Law Implemented Art. IV, Sec. 9, Fla. Const. History–New 7-2-87, Amended 7-2-90, 3-1-92, 6-1-94,
Formerly 46-24.003, Amended 7-9-02.
How to catch it
Assuming you’re using a tickle stick, a popular technique is to flash your light in the lobsters face then work the tickle stick behind it while it’s temporarily blinded. Usually, when the stick hits their tail they spin around to face it. Gently pull the stick towards you (and into the lobster) and they will fin right into you! Another good method applies if there is more than one exit from under the rock. Work them to the other hole, drop the stick, and grab them from the other exit. Sometimes teamwork helps.In any case, when you grab, grab quickly he who hesitates goes hungry.
Heartier and braver lobster hunters will advise you leave the tickle stick at home. Their rationale is that with the tickle stick you'll lose more lobsters than you will catch. The trick to the reach in and grab method is to be fast and don't hesitate... stick your hand in along the top of the hole, reach back as far as possible then push down. In theory, the lobster backs right into your hand. If you hesitate, you’re likely to get pinched. Obviously, big lobsters can hurt you the most, but they’re slower and less maneuverable than the smaller ones, which can make them easier to catch. Smaller ones tend to be quick and have better reach, but they can’t pinch as hard.
Naturally, your best source for up-to-date information on the lobstering laws is the state government, and there are several online resources you can use to find out what you need to know. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website is a good starting point. You can also get your license online, including a temporary permit that is good immediately.
This is not an official publication of lobster season rules and regulations.
For more information on lobstering, contact:
Florida Marine Patrol, 800-DIAL-FMP (342-5367)
Marathon Office, 305-289-2320, 800 ASK-FISH
National Marine Fisheries Service, 813-570-5305 or 305-743-2437
John Pennekamp State Park, 305-451-1202
Everglades National Park, 305-242-7700
Key Largo Office, 305-852-5119
Okay, you got the permit, caught your lobster, measured it, and now it’s sitting in your kitchen. How do you turn it from a big ugly bug into a big tasty meal? Well, there are lots of opinions on the best way to cook a lobster, from steaming to baking or even frying, and there are plenty of recipes for bisques, sauces, raviolis, stuffings, pies, and what have you if you look around. I’m going to give you the basic, traditional method I’m most familiar with.
Spiny lobster should be refrigerated at 32-38 degrees F and used within two days or stored in freezer at 0 degrees F for up to six months. Thaw frozen lobster in the refrigerator or under cold running water.
Preparation Time: 30 mins Servings: 4
4 spiny lobsters (dead)
10 oz butter
2 cups vine ripened tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
4 large leaves fresh basil
1 clove garlic, minced
Top tails with tomato relish and butter. Lobster butter may be formed into a roll and sliced or scooped with a melon baller. The butter is also good brushed on bruschetta to be grilled and served with the lobster tails.
1 1/2 cups wild rice
2 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped green onion with tops
4 cups water
2 vegetable bouillon cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1 1/2 pounds cooked crawfish tails
1 (10 1/2-ounce) can cream of shrimp soup
1/2 cup sherry
1/4 cup butter
Bake 30 minutes.
Serve remaining sauce separately.
Tomatoes stuffed with equal parts seasoned dry bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese, dotted with butter, may be slipped into the oven along with this dish, for an excellent meal.
4 Florida lobster tails
1/2 lb. butter
1 tbsp. chopped parsley
2 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 tsp. Tabasco
Place butter, parsley, and rest in bowl. Blend. Spread mixture over tails. Cook 6-8 minutes in oven depending on size (large tails may take 15-20 minutes). Serve with rice. Serves 4.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
4 live lobsters, (about 1 lb. Each)
3-4 cloves fresh garlic
¼-½ cup melted butter
Garnish: fresh parsley and lemon wedges
Remove and discard carapace, with strong kitchen shears cut tail along center of back, turn over and cut along center of underside. Remove meat in one piece, cut transversely to produce medallions. Peel and chop garlic leaving it rather coarse. Melt butter. Sauté garlic until it begins to brown. Add lobster medallions. Cook over high heat to keep lobster from becoming tough. Cook a few minutes. Do not overcook. Add brandy and set alight, as soon as flame extinguishes serve onto a warmed plate, drizzle with garlic butter, and garnish with fresh parsley and lemon wedges.
If you aren’t sure how to eat them once they’re cooked, give us a call… We’ll be happy to come over with some butter and show you!
Good luck and happy hunting,
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