Know the risks of mini-season

Droves of people will come to the Keys later this month to hunt the spiny lobster, a two-day event called mini-season.
Droves of people will come to the Keys later this month to hunt the spiny lobster, a two-day event called mini-season. The Reporter

For many “bug” hunters the two day spiny lobster mini-season or, “sport season” (which begins at 12:01 am on Wednesday July 27 and ends at 12 midnight on Thursday July 28) is like Christmas, Halloween, the Fourth of July and the best Super Bowl ever rolled into one fantastic celebration.

Officer Bobby Dube, public information officer for the Division of Law Enforcement of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, refers to the two day mini-season as “the “lobster frenzy.”

Hordes of eager lobster hunters will make the trek to the Keys towing all manner of water craft. Many will fill hotels, campgrounds and charter boats. The waters off the Keys will be reminiscent of the masses of ships waiting off-shore for the World War II invasion of Normandy.

Then, after a weeklong breather, an eight-month “regular” lobster season will run from August 6 through March 31.

Being a football fan, two songs asking about my readiness for football come to mind: Hank Williams Jr.'s singing "Are You Ready for Some Football?” and more recently, Carrie Underwood singing “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night.”

The Divers Alert Network (DAN), an organization that provides emergency assistance and medical information resources for divers, has come up with its own question for lobster or “bug” hunters, “Are you ready for lobster season?”

To help ensure you are, Dr. Peter Buzzacott, director, injury monitoring and prevention at DAN, will be making presentations during July in Florida on the “Risks and Hazards of Lobster Diving.”

It seems lobster mini-season especially is risky for unprepared or careless scuba divers. .

The findings of a DAN study released in July 2015 highlight the real and significantly elevated dangers of lobster min-season.

Over the last 10 years, the two-day season in Florida accounted for almost half of all underwater hunting deaths in the state (22 of 51, 43 percent), an average of two deaths over the same two days each year. Many other lobster hunters suffer non-life-threatening injuries or end up in hospital emergency rooms.

The DAN study sought to determine what puts lobster hunters at a higher risk of dying than other divers.

“Our study showed that the hunter and non-hunter groups share many characteristics such as age, BMI, years of dive experience and number of completed dives,” said Dr. P Buzzacott.

A breakdown of diving fatalities showed that 29 percent of the hunter group had completed over 60 dives, were an average age of 48 years, and 50 percent were married.

But, data obtain by DAN also revealed that underwater hunters average fewer dives a year than other types of divers (16 annual dives for hunters versus 24 for other divers). The organization speculates that this may be because several hunters only dive during the lobster season whereas other recreational divers may dive throughout the year.

It seems many scuba diving lobster hunting deaths could have been prevented.

“Though no denominator has been established to estimate the absolute risk of dying while hunting underwater, this study shows that there are some hunting-specific possible targets for safety innovations,” said Dr. Petar Denoble, vice president, DAN mission.

“We learned that hunters more commonly ran out of breathing gas and had a higher percentage of gas embolisms than non-hunters. This may have been due to the hunters becoming distracted and ignoring their gauges. Task overload can be very dangerous and our research suggests this too frequently results in death during mini-season,” according to Denoble.

“The risks faced by diving hunters appear to be modifiable through better education, awareness and preparedness. Hunting lobster is a strenuous sport and requires more preparation than basic recreational diving since the consequences of running out of gas can be severe. Safety should be every diver’s first priority,” Buzzacott added.

OK, what should you do to stay safe during mini-season?

Preparation and following the rules are vital in making sure your lobster hunting experience is safe.

DAN emphasizes the importance being in good health and physical condition to meet the rigors of diving for lobster. See your doctor about any medical condition that may limit your ability to safely dive and don’t dive if you have a cold or are sick.

Besides being properly maintained and routinely serviced, your scuba equipment should be checked before every dive to make sure it is properly functioning. (During the certification course, all divers are taught to conduct a “pre-dive” check – much like an airplane pilot does prior to take-off.)

If you haven’t been scuba diving for a while, take a refresher course. According to DAN, there are several procedural errors common to diving accidents including buoyancy control problems, rapid ascents, missed decompression stops, ear equalization problems, and, most critical, failing to properly monitor air supply resulting in low-on-air or out-of-air situations, while hunting.

Diving gets more complicated when lobster hunting. So, be sure to plan your dive and dive your plan.

DAN advises that you swim into the current during the first portion of a dive so coming back to the boat or shore, when you may be tired, will require less effort.

It is important that you be familiar with the dive site and know if it has potential safety hazards that may cause you to be entrapped, entangled or caught in a current.

If you are planning to use a boat, make sure it is in good operating condition, has been safety checked and has the required safety equipment on board. Be sure to review Florida boating laws and regulations.

In order to operate a motorboat of 10 horsepower or greater, Florida law requires anyone who was born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 to successfully complete an approved boating safety course and obtain a “Boating Safety Education Identification Card” issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Don’t forget to display a dive flag (dive flags are also required for snorkelers coming from shore) and to keep an operator on the vessel at all times when divers or snorkelers are in the water. It is an unpleasant surprise to discover your boat has drifted away while you were underwater.

Dr. Peter Buzzacott’s presentations will be given in the Keys at the following locations: the History of Diving Museum, Islamorada, July 20 at 7 p.m.; the Coral Restoration Foundation, Key Largo, July 22 at 6:30 p.m.; the Murray Nelson Center, Key Largo, July 25 at 3 p.m.; Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key, July 26, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and the NOAA Eco- Discovery Center Key West, July 26, 3-5 p.m.

A schedule of DAN mini-season presentations in other parts of Florida can be seen at: http://www.diversalertnetwork.org/?a=events&eventNo=1368

Even though DAN doesn’t have Hank Williams Jr or Carrie Underwood singing a rousing song asking, “Are you ready for lobster season?” remember that no lobster is worth your life. Be safe. Be in shape. Be prepared. Follow the rules. Keep an eye on your air gauge.

For more on lobster hunting in Monroe County (the Keys) see: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/whatsnew/around/2015/lobster.html

Lobster regulations for Monroe County can been seen at: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/regs/mc_lobster.pdf

For Information about DAN go to: http://www.diversalertnetwork.org/

Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at donrrhodes@gmail.com.