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Lobster Casitas Get Thumbs Down From State

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Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

For years, divers looking for lobster in the Florida Keys knew that the best place to find them was under some sort of shelter, whether a rock or something more artificial like a car hood.

John Coffin, who owns a marine salvaging business in the Lower Keys, said he got into using "casitas," or little houses, to find lobster in the late 1970s.

"It was a huge secret. I would never dive with another person," Coffin said. Still, even before GPS, other divers started following him around.

"It very quickly mushroomed out of control. When they made it illegal, I stopped," Coffin said.

Coffin may have stopped but others didn't, and casitas continued to find their way into Keys waters -- in recent years easily located with GPS coordinates. Commercial lobster divers asked the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to consider legalizing the casitas as a kind of gear akin to lobster traps.

FWC biologists studied the issue but wound up recommending against casitas, because they said it would be too complicated to permit adding structures to areas that are governed not only by the FWC but also by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Recently, the FWC accepted the recommendation, making the casita legalization effort dead for now.

That decision pleased trap fishermen who argue that casitas concentrate lobster and allow commercial divers to take too many of them too early in the season.

"It would be ludicrous for us to consider legalization of casitas at the same time the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is spending millions of dollars to remove them," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association.

Sanctuary staffers estimate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has spent about $800,000 removing casitas since 2008. Most of the effort was paid for by fines, seized assets and grants.

Kelly says the current anti-casita position should remain in place.

"The majority of these casitas are nothing but marine debris - car hoods, stoves, old dishwashers, concrete blocks attached to old fiberglass corrugated sheets," Kelly said

Coffin points out that lobster traps can also become marine debris, continuing to catch lobster and damage habitat when they become "ghost traps." He said the commercial divers wanted to work with biologists to evaluate the impact of casitas. He said the divers were even willing to buy into the lobster trap fishery, which requires a certificate issued by the state for each trap in the water.

"We were offering to go in slow," Coffin said. "All we wanted was an experimental scientific research fishery."

Spiny lobster, often called crawfish, are the most valuable commercial fishery in the state of Florida according to Kelly. Out of 450,000 traps in the state between 300,000 and 350,000 are in Keys waters bringing in landings of $50 million a year.