Feds: Undersea 'Little Houses' In Florida Keys A Threat To Marine Life

Aug 6, 2014

One of hundreds of 'casitas,' illegal lobster traps on the ocean floor off the Florida Keys.
Credit NOAA/TetraTech

For the last two months, marine restoration teams have been hauling up coffee table-like structures from Florida Keys waters. They're called casitas -- Spanish for "little houses."

Cute name -- but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says these things can be really nasty. They're made out of a wide variety of materials, including corrugated tin, plastic and cement.

When lobsters seek shelter under the artificial habitats, poachers can catch as many as 1,500 a day, far exceedng the daily catch limit of 250.

NOAA Marine Habitat Restoration Specialist Sean Meehan says illegal lobster-catching isn’t the only issue with casitas.

"They kill whatever is underneath them," says Meehan. "They smother seagrass, corals, sponges, gorgonians and other life on the bottom of the ocean."

A huge casita being hauled up from the ocean floor off Johnston Key. Federal wildlife officials say these illegal lobster traps pose a serious threat to underwater life.
Credit NOAA/TetraTech

Meehan says even more harm to undersea habitat can be done whenever casitas are moved from their original spots to other areas by storms or strong currents.

NOAA has been using underwater robots and sonar to locate the structures. The agency has contracted an environmental services firm and marine contractor from the Florida Keys to conduct the work. The teams are working off of a 54-foot, high-speed barge with a knuckle boom crane.

Once the casitas are hauled up to the surface, they're brought to shore, where they're either recycled or disposed of.

So far, Meehan and his team have found casitas at nearly 300 locations throughout the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. One of the sites had about 30 slabs of cement being used as casitas.

Federal wildlife officials estimate there are at least 1,500 casitas located in Florida Keys waters.