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In The Keys, Lobster Mini-Season Is A Holiday -- And An Ordeal

Nancy Klingener
FWC Officer John Martino checks lobster during the annual mini-season this year.

  Billy Causey has been in the Florida Keys since the early 1970s. And in that time, he's figured out a few things.

"There's some things you learn not to talk about. You know — religion, politics ... and mini-season," Causey said. "You don't go to a party in the Keys and talk about any one of those three."

But people actually do talk to Causey about the lobster mini-season, the two days each July when recreational divers get a jump on fishing for spiny lobster. Causey is the southeast regional director for the National Marine Sanctuary program and  a former superintendent of the Florida Keys and Looe Key national marine sanctuaries.

A lot of people who live in the Keys look at mini-season like Don Kincaid. He's been a commercial diver and underwater photographer and he owned a snorkel charter boat. Now he sits on the advisory council for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

"It's an untrained horde that are coming down with no regard for what damage they leave behind," Kincaid said.

Many in the Keys see mini-season as an annual invasion, when boat ramps are jammed and strangers show up in canals — canals that in many cases are also people's backyards.

But then there's the other side. Lobster mini-season is an annual tradition for people like Grant Downing, who comes down from Orlando for the event each year.

"This is a fun weekend to be here," Downing said. "I've been coming to Key West since I was 6 years old, and I just like it down here."

A few hours into the mini-season's first day this year, Downing and his friends already had 20 lobsters in the cooler. Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission Officer John Martino checked to make sure they were all of legal size. (They were.)

"Good luck with the lobster," he said as his boat pulled away from theirs. "Be careful out there, all right?"

Tom Matthews also hears a lot about the mini-season. He's the research administrator at the state Fish and Wildlife Research Institute's lab in the Keys. And he's been studying the lobster fishery for decades.

"It's the No. 1 issue, the love-hate relationship of the mini-season," he said. A spiny lobster fishing fact sheet produced by the Sea Grant program, Florida's marine-oriented extension service, is titled "A History Of Conflict."

The rules for the event have already been changed to lessen its impact in the Keys. It was moved from the weekend to mid-week. Night diving and diving in residential canals is banned in the Keys. The bag limit, or number of lobsters you can catch each day, is half of what it is in the rest of the state.

Still people suggest more measures could be taken. Like increasing the size of the lobsters you're allowed to keep. Or banning the use of scuba gear so lobster hunters would have to use snorkel equipment.

"We're one of the few countries in the world that allow lobster diving with scuba gear," said Kincaid. "So maybe if that were cut out ... of course then all the dive shops would lose money from selling air. So there's your conundrum right there."

Others have suggested a year-round lobster season so there would be no shotgun start with a concentrated impact. But Matthews points out that the season is closed in the spring and early summer because that's when the lobsters are breeding.

"There's a long history of good management in hunting and fishing that you don't hunt animals when they're reproducing," he said.

One proposal that keeps coming up targets the scofflaws who make multiple trips in a day, catching their limit, bringing those lobsters back to shore and going back out for more. Many people have proposed plastic tags that would be attached to every lobster you keep.

But that proposal has a lot of logistical challenges, especially now that most people get their fishing licenses online, not from a store. The state would have a hard time distributing and tracking the tags — who received them, where and when.

"Certainly we could tell after the fact," Matthews said. "But that doesn't help save the lobsters in the water."

Causey says when people complain about lobster mini-season, he always thinks back to his first years in the Keys before mini-season started in 1975. He said people used to show up and stay in campgrounds for two weeks at the start of the regular season.

People think the mini-season is crazy, "but they should have seen the full week or two weeks of crazy, if they want to see something crazy," he said.

And he says abolishing the mini-season altogether — another perennial suggestion — would just create more conflict between recreational divers who are eager to catch lobster at the beginning of the season and the commercial fishers. They're all targeting the same habitat, because that's where the lobster live.

The regular lobster season opens Aug. 6 and runs through March 31, 2017. Key West celebrates the opening of the season each year with a Lobsterfest, this year scheduled for Aug. 11-14.