Boot Key Harbor
"Marathon- the Heart of the Florida Keys"

An On-Line Cruising Guide for the Florida Keys & Cuba
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LOBSTER MANIA!!

On This page:   

ABOUT LOBSTER
                             LICENSES    
MINI-SEASON RULES
                       TIPS    
EQUIPMENT
                                         ANCHORING
COURTESY & SAFETY                     COOKING

 

 

(We are not an official agency of any type - so verify the regulations and license requirements yourself before relying on information here)

If you're going to be "lobstering" in the Florida Keys, then you must know the rules and regulations for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The Sanctuary has special preservation areas where you can't take anything, even in season, and has rules for boaters and divers. To lean all the details go to the Marine Sanctuary pages on this website.

Go to the DIVE SITES page on this site for dive shop listings and waypoints for recreational diving throughout the Keys.

ABOUT LOBSTER
Regular commercial lobster season runs from August to March here in the Florida Keys.  The special two day "sport" mini-season runs the latter part of July - last consecutive Weds & Thurs. Regular season is Aug 6-Mar 31 (as of 2010). Lobster crawls occur about late-summer or early-fall. Hundreds of lobsters walk in head-to-tail formations at a steady pace. No one still knows for sure why they do this, but there is some speculation that it's for new breeding grounds. Female lobsters carry as many as 4 million eggs in a season - generally February to April, then again in June and July. Egg's are on the female's abdomen after fertilization, which are gradually released into the ocean where they drift with currents. (Don't take any egg bearing females) Lobsters become sexually mature when they are 8-9 inches long.  They shed their shells to grow. It may take 5 years to reach one pound in weight, shedding it's shell as many as 30 times to do so. They usually eat their molted shells because of the nutritious mineral content. It deserves it's nickname "bug" because of resembling a giant underwater insect. Florida and Bahamian spiny lobsters are really a giant crawfish (panulirus argus). They don't have any pinching claws like the "real" lobsters up north, and don't get as big. Our spiny lobsters occur throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The juveniles like shallow waters close to shore and hide in seaweed while the adults like protected bays with high salinity. They hide in and around large sponges, groups of urchins and under ledges of coral heads (don't forget to turn yourself upside down underwater to look at the underside of ledges). Besides people, lots of things eat lobster including sharks, loggerhead turtles, octopus, and larger groupers and jewfish. During the two day mini-season in the Florida Keys, about 270,000 lobster will be taken. That number is more than 70% of the entire statewide total for the mini-season.

LOBSTER LICENSES:  You must have a Florida saltwater fishing license with the special lobster stamp. Non-resident and short-term licenses are also available. You can get these at many bait and tackle shops or marinas, as well as the Monroe County Tax Collector's office here in the Keys. The State of Florida also has an 800 number set up so you can get an instant temporary license over the phone 24 hrs per day. Call 1-888-FISH-FLOrida (1-888-347-4356) The agent will assign you this temporary license number so you can go out immediately and the permanent license will be mailed in a couple days. Payment is by credit card. Or go online to online at www.marinefisheries.org.

RULES FOR MINI-SEASON:   These are presented here as an example of the rules for the2010 season. They are subject to change and may not be updated on this site. Check each time for yourself.  The Keys are Monroe County.     FOR THE OFFICIAL FLORIDA REGULATIONS ON LOBSTER - GO TO http://www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov/regs/2002lobsterregs.pdf  , or www.marinefisheries.org

  • The limit is six per person per day for Monroe County, 12 per person per day for the rest of Florida. You can be cited for being over the limit if you have more than 12 after the 2nd day (Monroe County) - even if they belong to someone else. There are no vessel limits for the sport season, and the bag limits are enforced on and off the water.
  • Night Diving.  Monroe County (Florida Keys) does not permit night diving during 2 day sport season only- which is one hour after official sunset to one hour before official sunrise.
  • Transfer - you can't transfer lobster between boats while at sea.
  • License  - Saltwater fishing license plus bug stamp
  • Gear - you must have the plastic or metal measuring device in your possession while in the water. Prohibited are spears, hooks or wire snares that can hurt the lobster. Most people carry the measuring device, a "tickle stick", a hooped net, and a mesh net to store them in. Don't forget lobster gloves since they can "stick" you pretty good with the sharp horns on their shells. If they are under the size limit you must release them unharmed.
  • Bully-netting - this is a hooped net bent at right angles to the pole so you can stand on a dock and scoop them up. This is permitted day and night during sport season (2000), but you can't have these nets in Everglades National Park (The Bay side of the Keys, mostly in the upper keys).
  • Size:  The carapace must be 3 inches at minimum, and if not it must be returned to the water unharmed. See the illustration on how to measure the carapace. The gauge is 3 inches. It is placed between the horns (not over the eyes).  If the backside of the gauge goes off the carapace and touches the tail, it's an undersized lobster. The measurement must take place IN the water, not out of it.
  • Possession:  If they're in your catch bag in the water it's possession. They must remain whole while on the water - you can't break off tails before you get back to land with them. In the Everglades National Park you can't have lobster in your possession at all. Once you get back you can break off the tail, but it must be greater than 5 1/2 inches.
  • No lobster harvest is permitted in John pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during the sport season.
  • Spanish and Slipper Lobster (funny looking lobsters) are closed for taking in Key Largo (upper Keys) and Looe Key (lower Keys), John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (off Key Largo, upper Keys), Everglades National Park (upper Keys bayside) and the Dry Tortugas National Park (70 miles west of Key West).
  • Egg-bearing lobsters must be released unharmed. When you look at the underside of the tail you'll see eggs as a mass - colored yellow, brown, orange or red.
  • Traps: Don't even THINK about robbing someone's lobster trap. It's a felony to molest (don't even touch it), damage or take lobster from the trap. Commercial fisherman earn their living from these traps. This is not sport to them - it pays their bills. The felony charges should get everyone's attention, but you should keep in mind that this is a sensitive enough act of theft that trap robbers have been shot at.
  • Don't forget that diver's or snorkelers in the water need to have the red dive flag prominently displayed and stay close by. This dive flag should be displayed ONLY when divers are in the water, and not while the boat is underway. We know this is a badge to proclaim you as a lobster hunter, but it's improper to keep it up underway, and the Marine Patrol will make a point of stopping you for it. See the "Diving" pages on this website for the new Diver Down Flag regulations in Florida.

In the Florida Keys, during the regular commercial season beginning in August (Aug 6- Mar 31), night diving IS allowed and the bag limit increases to six per person, or 24 per boat, whichever is greater. The vessel limit applies only to state waters and not federal waters. State waters are out to 3 nm Ocean side, and 9 nm in the Gulf of Mexico.

LOBSTER TIPS:

  • Water magnifies things so they look bigger underwater. The lobsters look about 1/3 bigger than they really are. Make sure you measure them.
  • Don't take lobster from traps - even if they look lost or abandoned. It's a 3rd degree felony and besides, you could get shot or Keel-Hauled if caught by the fisherman!
  • If you haven't done this before, talk to one of the dive shops about a lobster short course, or a lobster seminar.
  • Most people just keep the tail and throw away the carapace, but this has good stuff in it. Split the lobster lengthwise along it's entire length including carapace, or cook up the carapace separately.
  • If you've got a lobster cornered in a hole, and they have one antenna pointing out at you, and the other back in the hole - WATCH OUT! Something is back there that he is concerned about - like a shark or moray eel. You don't want to be putting your hand back there. For that matter, be careful putting your hand blindly into any hole anyway.
  • An underwater light is useful even in the daytime for looking into holes and cracks. Sometimes the blinding light in their eyes will even momentarily freeze them.
  • When you grab the bug with your gloved hand, make the motion of your grab from the back to front of the lobster. If you grab while moving your hand forward, all the sharp spines on the shell will get you. Grabbing the other way keeps you from getting stuck. Remember that Florida lobsters don't have any claws to pinch, just the sharp shells to passively defend themselves.
  • Put them in your bag tail first for two reasons. The first is that they escape by flicking their tail and going backwards. This puts them right in your bag. The second is that the sharp spines all face forward so it's harder to put them head first in a mesh bag. Once it's in the bag make sure it's tightly closed.
  • Check your bag frequently for big holes where they can escape
  • When you see a nest of lobster, catch the little one first. If it meets the size requirements then you know the rest of them will.
  • Bigger lobsters are generally out in the 40-60 foot depths.
  • Don't get greedy - respect the limits and leave some for the rest of us

EQUIPMENT:
You don't really need ANY equipment to catch lobster. You can do it with your bare hands - but most would agree that the collecting equipment makes it lots easier. The spiny lobster has sharp horns on it's shell. As mentioned above, if you grab it going forward you're going to get stuck! Even when grabbing it the right way from behind, it's very helpful to have the rubberized protective "bug gloves". Our gloves double duty on the boat when handling anchor chain.  Make gloves your minimum equipment along with your fins, mask and snorkel. Nets and tickle sticks are next. The tickle stick is just a skinny little stick (some have a little ring dangling on the end) so that you can insert it into a hole or crack, reaching behind the lobster and scaring or nudging him out into your awaiting hooped net, or grabbing by hand. Tail snares work well too. They make some with the loop made out of material that won't hurt the lobster if they turn out undersized or egg-bearing. Wire snares that would injure them are prohibited. You also need the mesh "catch bag" to store them in. Some have nylon drawstrings while others have a hinged metal hoop opening to make it easier to get the bug in the hole.  Bully nets allow you to catch lobster from the dock, or from the boat in shallow water. These are the hooped nets that are bent at right angles to their long handle. This also allows you to catch lobster at night which you can't do in the Keys at night during mini-season, but you still have the same limits.

ANCHORING & MOORING:
ANCHORING: Mooring buoys are the easiest to use, and protect the reefs. However, many if not most of the mooring balls are located in Sanctuary Special Preservation Areas (SPAS) or other areas where taking lobster is prohibited. This means you'll need to anchor most of the time. Your objective is to make sure the anchor holds, while simultaneously avoiding damage to coral by either your anchor or chain. If your nylon rode swings into coral it will quickly chafe through, and there goes your boat!  Look for the bright green sand patches and try to set your anchor right there. Swim on it after your set to check it - make sure it's in the sand and the chain can't swing into any coral heads. You can be sure that the Florida Marine Patrol will be checking out anchors by using the viewing tubes from their boats. If you're doing any damage to coral you're in for really BIG fines. Anchors are lowered - not thrown.  Motor slowly into the current or wind - whichever is stronger. It usually means head-on into the waves. Have the person at the helm position your bow right over the middle of the sandy spot you've chosen. The boat should have no forward motion so you don't run over the anchor. Slowly lower it to the bottom, then have the helmsman slowly back up, putting some tension around a cleat after a 3:1 scope or so is out, so it helps the anchor set and dig in. Then let out more line to get an adequate scope. Scope is the ratio of how much line you have out, to the depth of the water (including freeboard to your bow). The more scope the better the anchor will hold, but the larger circle in which you'll swing. If the water is 15 feet and you have 3 feet of freeboard to your bow, then you treat this as 18 feet feet of water. If you want a 5:1 scope then you must let out 90 feet of rode (5 X 18) (rode is your anchor line and chain). Depending on your anchor, 5:1 is pretty good for anchoring a couple of hours in good weather. 10:1 is considered storm worthy scope.  3:1 is minimal but can work with a good heavy anchor. We prefer a heavy Bruce anchor here in the keys because it stays set even when the boat swings with the current. Danforth's work very well when the flukes are buried in the sand. You can dive or snorkel down on your anchor to help this process too.  If you're in deep water of 40 feet or more then you probably can't see the bottom anyway. Citations won't be issued for this deep water if coral damage occurs because you have no way of seeing it. However, if you get your anchor caught in coral you'll either have to dive down on it to free it, or possibly lose your anchor.
MOORING:  The round mooring buoys you can tie to are all white, with a blue strip horizontally across the middle. Don't tie up to the larger all yellow buoys. These mark the boundaries for special areas and are not to be used to moor boats. When you see one of these yellow ones, look around for more. There should be 3 or 4 some distance apart and anything within there enclosed area is usually a protected "no-take" area. The white & blue mooring buoys have a line with a loop in it tied to the top of the ball, called the pendant. Watch which direction the pendant is floating from the ball, then approach the ball slowly directly from this position - so the pendant is pointing right at you. Before you get to the buoy take on of your own lines and make fast on one of your bow cleats, leaving the other end free. You're going to thread the loop of the pendant with this line of your own creating a "bow" to your boat. When you approach the pendant (slowly - don't over run the buoy) pick it up with a boat hook or something. Then pass the free end of your line through the loop of the pendant. Now fasten this end of your line to the other bow cleat. This has created a bow of line going through the middle of the loop of the pendant. The bigger your boat or the rougher the weather, the more line you should use to make the angle of pull more shallow. If you're pulling it underwater you probably need more line (more scope). Check out the pendant while you're doing this to ensure that it's not chafed through, to make sure it will hold your boat. When you're ready to leave just untie one end of your line and slowly back off, letting the line slip out of the eye of the eye of the pendant. Then bring all line back onboard so it can't fall off and foul your props.
When you are anchored or moored don't forget to put out your diver down flag - and remove this flag when you're underway. Boats over 40 feet in length should also display the round black dayshape, though this is infrequently enforced.

COURTESY & SAFETY:
The Florida Keys see tens of thousands of transient visitors during the two day mini-season at the end of July. The crowds and congestion have created so many problems that the Tourist Development Council has even asked the County Commissioners to request that the State of Florida terminate the season.  Both safety and nerves are an issue. Many accidents occur both on the water and on the road. People die. Naturally the Florida Marine Patrol and US Coast Guard are out in full force, as well as State Highway Patrol and County Sheriff.  Please remember basic courtesies wherever you go. There will be long lines in both traffic and at boat ramps. The reefs can get crowded. These are the Keys so just switch to "Island Time" and relax.  Being first on a spot, or five minutes ahead on the road is not worth being rude or enduring the psychological stress. Maintaining dignity under stress is the mark of strong character. Importantly, make sure you have all the safety equipment on your boat and know how to use it. You MUST have charts of the Keys waters and know how to read and use them. If you'd like to take some basic boating classes then check in with the United States Power Squadron, or the Marathon Power Squadron in the Keys. Respect property owners by not crossing private property to get to the water, and don't snorkel right up residential canals or the seawalls right in front of someone's house. Fly your dive flag and stay close by it. Be watchful of other dive flags and people in the water. It's not easy to see a snorkeler in the water when it's just their head and butt showing - especially in choppy water when your own boat is moving fast. Slow down around other boats. We've had divers killed by unknowledgeable boaters who didn't know the meaning of a dive flag and ran their boats right over the diver's head at 40+ mph. Be Careful yourself. Don't forget to count the number of people on board your own boat before you leave if you have others with you. We've even had commercial diver operators leave divers behind because of bad head counts. Know how to use the VHF marine radio properly. Remember common courtesies and reef preservation on the water too. Don't tear up or turn over coral just to get at lobsters - let them go if it means tearing up coral. Don't touch the coral or brush up against it - it kills it. Be careful with your anchor and keep it in the sand flats. Please don't throw junk overboard like beer cans and trash. Take a bag with you and stuff it inside while on the boat. It's possible to have a GREAT time on the water without going over limits, littering, breaking the law, or being rude. Enjoy it. Finally, watch out for the sun - it can fry you in an hour or so down here. Make sure you wear a T-shirt when snorkeling or on the boat, and wear a hat on open boats. Polarized sunglasses help you spot lobster in shallow water better, and are invaluable to safely navigate shoals and reefs.

COOKING LOBSTER:
Usually, most people boil or grill just the tails. You can get more meat by cutting the lobster lengthwise in two. Cut in in half lengthwise down the middle. Remove the stomach in the body, and the intestinal vein which goes from there to the tip of the tail. Rinse and clean the body cavity before cooking. After cooking, use a sharp knife to loosen the meat from the edge of the shell. Then grab the tip of the tail with a fork and lift and pull it up toward the head, stripping it out of the shell.

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Boot Key Harbor website created and maintained by Capt. Gregory T. Absten, Marathon.  - A Boater's Guide to the Florida Keys & Cuba
Copyright 2000-2012 Gregory T. Absten