July 29, 2020

Safety is the primary concern during lobster mini-season, which begins Wednesday, July 29. Not just for the survival of the species — which the State Attorney’s Office, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are reminding everyone about the rules and the penalties for breaking them ­­­ — but also for the boaters and divers who will be out hunting for “bugs.”

The two-day lobster mini-season runs from 12:01 a.m. on July 29 to 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, July 30, but the 48 hours in between are hardly a free-for-all. Mini-season is regulated not only by the requirement of having a saltwater fishing license and a lobster permit, but also in terms of how lobsters are caught, as well as how many each person can have and what size they must be to keep them. Each violation of these rules can carry penalties up to 60 days in jail and fines up to $500.

These measures are designed to protect both the spiny lobster population and the fragile ecosystem of the Florida Keys.

The FWC also noted they are not solely concerned about catching people abusing the system, they also emphasized that the safety of boaters as a primary concern.

They are looking to make sure dive flags are up when passengers are in the water and that diving in canals is prohibited. They also warn boaters of conducting a 360-degree scan, because divers can get whisked away in the current and end up a mile away from their boat, thus operators need to come to an idle speed within 100 feet of a dive flag.

Each year, more than 50,000 vessels and 80,000 recreational harvesters participate in mini-season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While the safety of people is a primary goal of law enforcement, the safety of the environment is not taking a backseat.

Monroe County’s daily bag limit is six lobsters per person per day, which differs from the usual 12 per person for the rest of Florida, as well as the prohibition of night diving, according to the FWC. Bully-netting is allowed as of 12:01 a.m., July 29.

As far as measuring caught lobsters, each lobster must have a carapace (or body) that is greater than 3 inches long when measured in the water. Furthermore, lobster tails cannot be separated (or wrung) from the body while still on or in the water, but must be taken back to land in whole condition. Once separated from the body on land, the tail must be 5.5 inches or greater.

It’s also illegal to harvest egg-bearing lobsters, and spearing lobsters is similarly prohibited. The penalties for the various lobster violations could potentially land a violator in jail for much longer than the two-day season.

The State Attorney’s Office has developed baseline plea offers for those cited for violating the lobster regulations which includes 10 days in jail for one lobster more than the limit, 10 days for one out-of-season lobster and 10 days for one speared lobster (in each case, it’s three days more for each illegal lobster more than the limit).

Having a single wrung tail on the water could be lead to two days in jail, with two days added for each tail up to 20 lobsters. Between 20 and 24 tails could mean 60 days in jail, while 25 or more tails could lead to a 364-day stint in jail. For harvesting egg-bearing lobsters, which also includes stripping a lobster’s eggs from its body, the punishment could be up to five days in jail. Additional egg-bearing or egg-stripped lobsters add three days each.

Additional penalties exist if lobsters are taken from protected areas within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The locations of protected areas can be found at the Sanctuary website, https://floridakeys.noaa.gov/, which also specifies the various restrictions and prohibitions of near-shore lobstering in unincorporated Monroe County and municipalities such as Key West, Marathon, Islamorada, Key Colony Beach and Layton. Recreational harvesters can expect attention from groups such as FWC, MCSO and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.

Additionally, lobster harvesting is prohibited at Everglades National Park, the Dry Tortugas National Park and the Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Lobster Sanctuary. Lobster harvesting during the lobster mini-season is prohibited at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, but is legal during the regular season, according to the FWC.

The conclusion of lobster mini-season ends just seven days before the beginning of the regular recreational/commercial lobster season, which runs from Aug. 6 and March 31.

In order to make sure all parties involved have a safe 48 hours of lobstering the FWC and MCSO will have undercover officers on land, checking for people making double trips, on sea, patrolling in boats and jet skis, as well as in the air, with helicopters and aircrafts.

For information regarding lobster harvesting regulations, visit https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster/.