South Florida divers are hopeful that this year’s lobster miniseason will be way better than last year, when the tasty crustaceans known as bugs were surprisingly hard to come by.
“It was a real struggle,” said Jim “Chiefy” Mathie. “We did get our limit, but it was hard work. They weren’t clustered together. There were times two years ago where we’d jump in a hole and there’d be 20 of them. It wasn’t that way last year, it was just onesies and twosies.”
The miniseason, which this year is July 29-30, is the first opportunity for recreational divers to catch lobsters since the recreational and commercial regular seasons closed on April 1. The absence of lobster traps and not being poked and prodded by divers armed with snares, tickle sticks and nets for nearly four months usually results in an abundance of bugs that are less wary than usual for the two-day sport season.
That’s also why the miniseason daily bag limit is 12 lobsters, which is double the regular-season limit. (The miniseason daily limit in the Florida Keys and Biscayne National Park is six bugs per person per day. Visit www.myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster.)
A retired Deerfield Beach fire chief and author of “Catching the BUG: The Comprehensive Guide to Catching the Spiny Lobster,” which is available at local dive stores and online, Mathie said the 2018 miniseason was one of the best ever. His seven-man crew had its limit of 84 lobsters by 7:30 a.m. Last year, his crew didn’t catch even a one-person limit at its first spot, and had to visit a number of different locations before limiting out.
Mathie believes the difference between the past two miniseasons was Hurricane Irma, which hit the Keys hard in 2017 and destroyed thousands of lobster traps.
“After Irma, all the commercial guys got wiped out, and I think it took them a year to kind of come back,” Mathie said. “That year after Irma was just phenomenal. Every time we’d go out we’d get our limit. Last year, the commercial guys were back and they were catching them, there’s no doubt.”
This year, Mathie said COVID-19 has hurt Florida’s commercial lobster industry because of restricted air travel to China, where live lobsters were shipped on a regular basis. The communist country had accounted for up to 80 percent of the Keys’ lobster sales.
With that demand gone, prices dropped dramatically.
“What ended up happening was a lot of those commercial guys, it wasn’t worth it anymore,” Mathie said. “They were making upwards of $15, $16 a pound. So that was a pretty good deal. But then COVID-19 kind of wiped out the commercial lobstering.”
Coronavirus concerns also canceled Lauderdale-by-the-Sea’s ninth annual BugFest, which had been scheduled for the week of miniseason.
Mathie, who dives year-round, said lobster numbers in South Florida improved early this year, although many of the lobsters he and his dive buddies encountered did not have more than a 3-inch-long carapace, which is the minimum legal size limit.
“There were a ton of shorts,” he said. “We’d jump in a hole, we’d see them clustered together and out of eight lobsters, only two were legal size. But there were a lot. So I do think that we’re going to see a good miniseason this year.
“When we’ve been diving in the deeper stuff, like 65-85 feet, to go lionfish hunting, we’ve been seeing lobsters clustered together. Not 20 or 30, but four or five in one area, so that’s a good sign.”
Mathie gets serious about scouting the week before the miniseason. But he said now is the time for divers who haven’t been in the water for a while to jump in and make sure their gear is working properly. After this coming week, most dive shops have too big a backlog to make last-minute repairs in time for miniseason.
When he scouts, Mathie checks numerous spots in 35-45 feet that have been productive in past miniseasons before settling on the handful that he’ll dive during the first morning.
“People have been seeing lobsters in different depths, so it’s just a matter of putting in your mind where you’re going to go for miniseason,” Mathie said. “I want to be in the water between 6 and 6:30. That’s kind of what we aim for — basically the crack of dawn. The lobsters are just coming back from walking around the reef and foraging.
“That’s why the midnight diving isn’t all that good, but people like to do that because they are walking around and they’re easy to catch. Personally, I like when they’re just coming back into the hole, they’re clustered together and you grab as many as you can.
“Hopefully we get them all in one spot. The first one.”
LOBSTER SEASON DETAILS
The annual lobster miniseason runs from 12:01 a.m. July 29 through midnight July 30. The regular season is Aug. 6-March 31.
Linceses: You must have a saltwater fishing license ($17 for residents) and a spiny lobster stamp ($5).
Limits: The miniseason bag limit is six lobsters per person per day in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park and 12 per person in the rest of the state. The regular-season daily bag limit is six lobsters per person.
Legal lobsters: Spiny lobsters must have a minimum carapace length of more than 3 inches and must be measured in the water. Possession and use of a measuring device is required at all times. Lobsters must remain in whole condition while in or on the water. No egg-bearing females may be taken.
Other regulations: Night diving is prohibited in Monroe County during miniseason. Taking lobsters in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is prohibited during miniseason. Harvest is prohibited during miniseason and the regular season in the Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Spiny Lobster Sanctuary, Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, no-take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (visit http://floridakeys.noaa.gov) and in the five Coral Reef Protection Areas in Biscayne National Park (visit https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bnp).
Dive flags: Dive flags on boats must be at least 20 by 24 inches and have stiffeners to keep the flags unfurled. Dive flags on floats must be a minimum of 12 by 12 inches. Dive flags on boats must be displayed above the vessel’s highest point so the flag’s visibility is not obstructed in any direction. Boats must make an effort to stay at least 300 feet from dive flags on open waters and at least 100 feet from flags in rivers, inlets or navigation channels.
Information: Visit https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster. To report lobster violations, call Wildlife Alert at 888-404-FWCC (3922).