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BUG HUNTIN'

Scuba divers and snorkelers across Florida are counting down the days until the two-day "sportsman" or mini-season for lobster, which is held every year the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July. Florida started the two-day sportsman season so recreational divers could get a crack at the prized crustaceans before commercial fishermen drop thousands of traps into the water Aug. 1. On the west coast, you need to travel to deep water, 80 feet or more, to find lobster. But in the warm water of the Florida Keys, you can find these tasty "bugs" in water as shallow as 10 feet.

Regulations

+ The two-day "sportsman" will be held July 30-31. The limit is six lobster per person per day in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park; 12 lobster per person per day in other parts of the state.

+ Legal spiny lobster must be measured in the water and have a carapace 3 inches long or larger. A reminder that possession and use of a measuring device is required.

+ A recreational saltwater license and a crawfish permit is needed for harvest. There is no season, size or bag limit for shovelnose or slipper lobster.

+ The regular recreational season runs from Aug. 6 through March 31. A new rule elimnates the old 24 lobster per vessel limit and in its place allows only a six lobster per person per day limit.

Lifecycle

Phyllosoma

Open ocean (6-9 months)

25 mm (Total width)

Puerulus Post

Larvae Coastal zone (few days to weeks)

10 mm (Carapace length)

Juvenile

Inshore grass beds (3-4 years)

1-1.5 inches (Carapace length)

Migratory routes

You'll find spiny lobsters in protected rock ledges and the caverns of coral reefs, sponge flats, and other hard-bottomed areas. Spiny lobster spawn from March-August. You can tell a female lobster (protected) by the bright orange eggs on her underside. The larvae are then carried for thousands of miles by currents until they settle in shallow nearshore areas among seagrass and algae beds. Juvenile lobster feed on small snails and crabs and when they mature, migrate to offshore reefs and deep water.

The tail

The meat-filled tail is not only the tastiest part of the crustacean but also its chief weapon of defense. One flip of the tail is all it takes for a lobster to shoot past a would-be bug hunter and disappear.

Adult (actual size)

Reef dweller (10-12 years)

Spiny lobsters are so named because of the spines that cover their bodies. Spiny lobster vary in color, from almost light to deep red, depending on their habitat.

Carapace

It takes about two years for a spiny lobster to grow a 3-inch carapace (the legal-harvesting size). An adult spiny lobster can weigh as much as 15 pounds.

The antennae

Are used to scare off predators. The smaller antennae, called antennules, can sense movement and help detect chemicals in the water.

Noise as a defense

Because the spiny lobster has no claws, it uses its antennae to create a loud rasping buzz to deter predators. It does this by rubbing it plectrum, located at the base of each antennae, against a long oblong lump or pad on either side of the lobster's head.

What you'll need to catch 'em

While the only way to get lobster is with SCUBA, in the Florida Keys most people go lobstering with just a mask, snorkel and fins. The preferred method is to drag behind a moving boat on a water-ski rope and then drop down when a ledge or hole looks promising. Here are some basic gear you'll need to catch your lobsters.

+ Measuring device: If the carapace fits within the smaller (top) notch, the animal is too small to take.

+ Dive flag

+ A "tickle" stick can be used to coax the lobster out of its hole and into a net. Both methods are effective at capturing the lobster without injury, which is essential since egg-bearing females and undersized animals must be released unharmed.

+ A long stick with a retractable loop at one end that works almost like a snare is one way to catch the lobster. The diver carefully slips the noose around the lobster's tail, tightens the cord, then quickly measures and bags the prey.

+ Bag to hold the lobster

+ Net to catch the lobster

Hiding out

The greatest challenge is finding lobster. These animals are adept at camouflage and can be difficult to spot.

Sources: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Geographic, University of California, Irvine, Florida Marine Research Institute, St. Petersburg

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