Saturday, March 24, 2018

Half the task of catching lobsters is finding them

Forget about getting anything out of Tom Matthews. The lobster biologist is as cagey as the crustaceans he studies.

"The problem is that lobsters are notoriously hard to count," said Matthews, who works in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's field office in Marathon. "If you took all of the lobsters and put them in one room, they would all gather together in one corner."

So with the two-day lobster sport season running next Wednesday and Thursday, Matthews couldn't really tell me where to go in the Florida Keys to get my limit.

"Another problem is that lobsters are natural nomads," he added. "They can walk one or two kilometers in a day looking for food. In a couple of weeks, they can move 20 or 30 kilometers."

So even if Matthews could tell me where the lobsters were today, there would be no guarantee that the crustaceans would be in the same place tomorrow. That's why lobster divers are often called bug "hunters" because half the task of catching lobsters is finding them.

Divers call these creatures "bugs" because lobsters are both invertebrates and come from the same phylum. The common traits lobster and insects share are jointed appendages — legs, antennae and mouthparts — and both also have a rigid external skeleton that they molt or shed as they grow.

A Florida lobster looks a little like a crawfish. It doesn't have the large claws for hunting and defense like its cousins off the coast of Maine. The spiny lobster's main defense is its speed.

With one flip of the tail, these critters can take off in the blink of an eye, leaving a diver bewildered and empty-handed.

As Matthews explained, lobsters are great travelers, but they tend to move around more at night. On rare occasions, it is possible to see long lines of lobsters walking across the ocean bottom.

"When a low pressure — a cold front or a hurricane — approaches, lobsters will queue up or form a line and walk to deeper water where it is safer," Matthews added.

Marine biologists have also tracked lobsters equipped with sonar tags for weeks at a time. One specimen walked 78 miles over a 42-day period, and ended up in the same place it started.

But chances are if you head out for next week's mini-season, or wait till the regular lobster season opens Aug. 6 and runs through March 31, you will have to find lobsters hiding under reefs and ledges.

The most important thing to learn before you get started is how to measure a lobster. A legal lobster has a carapace (the shell that covers its body) length of 3 inches and usually weighs about 1 pound.

Divers and snorkelers must carry a measuring device in the water and release lobster that are too "short," i.e., those with a carapace less than 3 inches.

But don't get discouraged. There are some big ones out there. The largest lobster on record had a 10-inch carapace and weighed more than 21 pounds. Researchers aren't sure how old a lobster that size would be, but they guessed about 21 years old.

You will also need to know how to identify an egg-bearing female, which carry eggs (you will see them directly under the tail) for about a month anytime between April and August. An egg-bearing female is said to be "berried," and under the regulations must be released unharmed.

During the sport season, you may keep six lobsters per person per day in Monroe County (the Keys) and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person per day in the rest of Florida.

A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit are also required.


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