Diving

The eve of regular lobster season is near

Lobsters stand in a row underneath a rock off the Upper Keys.
Lobsters stand in a row underneath a rock off the Upper Keys.

This time every summer my mind conjures up scenes from the 1962 epic war film The Longest Day about the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944.

I visualize the vast armada of ships holding thousands of soldiers preparing to storm the beaches.

In the Florida Keys, we have our own version of the longest day, the two-day lobster “mini-season” that started at 12:01 am on Wednesday July 26 and ending at 12 midnight on Thursday July 27.

Every year, thousands of spiny lobster are taken (the total for the entire season, including commercial take, in Florida is over six million); coral will suffer damage; and, if the past is any indication, people may lose their lives.

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

The Overseas Highway is always bumper to bumper with trucks and SUV towing all manner of watercraft. The marinas are in full swing. Hotels and motels are full. Dive operators run full-bore. Sporting goods stores equip lobster hunters with nets, bags, tickle sticks and other paraphernalia to aid them in the capture of the spiny creatures. Even emergency rooms and urgent care facilities get more business.

Then, after that, to paraphrase a famous novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I, all will be quiet on the Key’s front until the eight-month long regular lobster season that commences on Monday Aug. 6 and runs through March 31 of 2018.

Most lobster hunters are honest and well-intentioned. Very few think they can get away with poaching lobsters, breaking laws, not learning the rules or believing they won’t get caught. That is a bad decision.

On Sunday July 9, seven out-of-state men were apprehended and charged with various crimes for possessing 137 out-of-season “wrung” spiny lobster tails, 117 of which were undersized.

The law enforcement officers of the FWC, who are some of the best trained and have the broadest powers of any police in Florida, are out in force. Local FWC enforcement get help during mini-season when an additional FWC personnel supplementing the existing force.

The officers have land vehicles, watercraft, jet skis and aircraft, unmarked boats, plain clothes officers and canine units. They even have gear to locate the lobster and lobster catching equipment violators try to dump into the ocean. “It won’t go well for you if we have to get wet,” says Dube.

Educating the public is a high priority of FWC. Staff of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission host a lobster Information booth. Representatives appear on radio broadcasts and use social media to explain the “dos and don’ts” of catching lobster including: Where can I go? How do I catch and measure a lobster? And, what if I catch a female with eggs? (Hint- read to the end for answers.)

The Divers Alert Network (DAN) an organization that provides emergency assistance and medical information resources for divers, emphasizes the importance being in good physical condition and general health to meet the rigors of diving for lobster. In other words, make sure you are in good shape. See your doctor about any medical condition that may limit your ability to dive safely and don’t dive if you have a cold or are sick.

The same goes for your scuba equipment, which should be properly maintained, serviced and inspected before every dive.

According to Dr. Peter Buzzacott, director, injury monitoring and prevention for DAN, an average of two people have died each two-day mini-season in Florida over the past 12 years. “The number could actually be higher if you factor in fatalities of divers who come to the Keys early to scout out good lobster diving locations,” he said.

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, especially while hunting.

Comparing 110 diving fatalities involving hunters with 290 non-hunting diving fatalities, DAN found that the hunters ran low on- or out of- air much more often than the non-hunters. It is speculated that the distraction of the hunt kept the hunting divers from monitoring their air gauge.

The chance of a fatality is much higher in an out-of-air situation if a diver is lobster hunting alone according to Buzzacott. “Besides, it is more fun and you can cover more ground if you dive with another hunter,” he said adding a positive reason for diving with a buddy.

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

“This type of diving is objective-based, which make it different from most recreational diving. Managing equipment such as tickle sticks, snares and catch bags contributes to task loading, an increase in responsibilities that leads to greater risk for error,” says Stefanie D. Martina in the spring issue of DAN’s Alert Diver.

Data acquired by DAN also shows that underwater hunters have less diving experience each year than other types of divers (16 annual dives for hunters versus 24 for other divers), possibly because hunters only dive during the lobster season whereas other recreational divers may dive throughout the year.

Be careful operating your boat and study the charts for Keys’ waters. Navigating the shallow waters in the Keys can be tricky. Harming the coral or seagrass can lead to big fines.

All boaters are encouraged to take a boater safety course (mandatory for anyone born after January 1, 1988), and have required safety equipment on board.

Display a dive flag (dive flags are also required for snorkelers coming from shore) and 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.

Concerning sustainability: do not harvest a lobster without first using a lobster gauge to confirm that its carapace (from the rear of the eyes to the start of the tail) is at least three inches long; release all female lobsters bearing eggs (usually bright orange) on the underside of their carapace; and, adhere to bag limits.

A few ways to protect the reef are by not standing, sitting on, or touching the coral; not harassing marine life; and, properly disposing of your litter.

Don’t forget to obtain a valid Florida saltwater fishing license and lobster permit to harvest lobster.

Lobster hunting is regulated more strictly in Monroe County than elsewhere in Florida. During the mini-season bag limits are smaller and lobster diving at night is illegal.

If you are coming to the Keys for lobster season, remember that no lobster is worth your life. Be safe. Be prepared. Follow the rules. Keep an eye on your air gage.

For more on license requirements and the laws and regulations relating to lobstering in the Keys obtain a copy of “Regulations for Recreational Harvest and Lobster Information for Monroe County, Florida” at a dive shop sporting goods store or many other locations or see: http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/regs/mc_lobster.pdf

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.

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