If you're gearing up for next week's two-day "mini" lobster season, there's good news and bad news.
First, the good news: It looks like the number of lobsters caught by recreational divers and commercial fishermen has gone up for the second straight year.
Now the bad news: Those annual harvests of roughly 5.5 million pounds are still considered "bad" years compared to the historic high of more than 10 million pounds in 1999-2000.
"We're not positive what the cause is, but we suspect it could be the lobster virus," said Tom Matthews, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office in Marathon. "But it is not something that is unique to Florida. It is a problem all over the Caribbean."
Don't worry. The virus is not contagious, or at least not to humans. And according to researchers, it has probably always been present in the ecosystem.
On a positive note, the relatively warm weather this spring may have allowed the lobsters to grow more quickly, Matthews said, meaning there might be more legal-sized "bugs" out there for divers and snorkelers.
Because there have been no major storms or hurricanes in South Florida so far this summer it might also mean the lobsters will be in shallower water and, thus, more accessible to divers.
Even though more than 100,000 lobstermaniacs are expected to hunt for Florida's favorite crustacean, you don't have to drive hundreds of miles when the state holds its sport season on Wednesday and Thursday.
Divers catch plenty of spiny lobster in the waters off Tampa Bay, but the crustaceans tend to be scattered and more difficult to find. There are not as many as you will find in the Florida Keys, but if you do catch one, it will probably be larger than its South Florida counterparts, which average about ¾ to 1 pound. Local divers have been known to pull in lobsters of 10 pounds or more.
But diving for lobster in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico can be challenging. Visibility can range from 80 feet on a good day to a few yards when the water is stirred up or full of algae. That's why local "bug hunting" is usually a game played by veteran divers. Novices will have better results under the tutelage of an instructor or experienced divemaster.
If you land a local lobster, you'll find that they don't taste any different than those caught in the Keys. The Caribbean spiny lobster ranges from North Carolina to Brazil.
Divers call spiny lobsters "bugs" because these crustaceans and insects are both invertebrates and come from the same phylum, Arthropoda. The common traits lobster and insects share are jointed appendages — legs, antennae and mouthparts.
They also have a rigid external skeleton that molts or sheds as the creature grows.
The Florida lobster looks a little like a crawfish. It doesn't have the large claws for hunting and defense like its cousin from Maine. The spiny lobster's main defense is its speed. With one flip of the tail, these critters can take off and leave a diver empty-handed.