July 29, 2020

File
A diver returns to his boat with a spiny lobster during a past mini-season. This week's two-day sport season may be a little different, with the possibility of fewer vessels and harvesters because of boat ramp closures. See story on page 3A.

File A diver returns to his boat with a spiny lobster during a past mini-season. This week's two-day sport season may be a little different, with the possibility of fewer vessels and harvesters because of boat ramp closures. See story on page 3A.

FLORIDA KEYS — During this year’s spiny lobster mini-season, set for Wednesday, July 29, and Thursday, July 30, some things may be familiar — and others not — to those taking part.

More than 50,000 vessels and 80,000 recreational harvesters usually participate in mini-season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But this year the event could be different, with the possibility of fewer vessels and harvesters because of ramp closures.

Despite several Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board members voicing frustration about the Florida Keys governments deciding last week to shut down several Upper and Middle Keys boat ramps to visitors, the annual two-day is scheduled to go forward despite local calls to suspend it during the coronavirus pandemic.

Monroe County Commission members agreed to close the public boat ramps to visitors at Harry Harris and Sunset parks in the Upper Keys from July 24 through Aug. 9. The commission also agreed to close Rowell’s Park during that same time. The commission agreed to limit access to the Upper Keys boat ramps to locals only because of concern about day-trippers coming down from the mainland and possibly spreading COVID-19.

The municipalities of Islamorada and Marathon also closed most ramps to the public out of concerns about social distancing.

On Friday, citing health and safety concerns, the Marathon City Council passed a resolution closing both the Harbor Drive boat ramp off Aviation Boulevard behind the local airport and the Quay boat ramp at mile marker 54 from Tuesday, July 28, through Thursday, July 30. Only the ramp at 33rd Street is to be open to Marathon residents and those with valid Marathon vacation rental documents on the days surrounding mini-season. Identification is required. The measure passed 3-2 with Councilman Dan Zieg and Mayor Steven Cook dissenting.

Several speakers attending the meeting virtually said with the ramps in Key Largo and Islamorada closed, Marathon would bear the brunt of boaters’ needs and they thought it best for residents to push the bottleneck south of the Seven-Mile Bridge.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said there are five or six ramps south of that bridge that might accommodate visitors. FWC Officer Bobby Dube said the state agency would have extra officers from out of the county to assist at the boat ramps to see if people were locals, short-trip renters or day-trippers.

FWC Capt. Dave Dipre took a realistic approach to the event, as well.

“People are coming for mini-season. You can expect they’re going to try to find a boat ramp somewhere. They want to get out on the water and enjoy themselves,” he said Friday. “The day-trippers are going to come and people are going to be calling 911. There will be traffic backups, there will be fights and I am certain there will be some situations.

The Monroe County’s Sheriff’s Office issued a news release urging those who plan on participating in catching lobster during the event, which runs from 12:01 a.m. July 29 to 11:59 p.m. July 30, to familiarize themselves with both state law and local ordinances in the Florida Keys and recommended visiting myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lobster and monroecountyem.com/1181/Boating-Fishing-Boat-Ramps.

FWC rules state the daily bag limit is six lobsters per person for Monroe County and Biscayne National Park, and 12 per person for the rest of Florida. The possession limit on the water is equal to the daily bag limit. The possession limit off the water is equal to the daily bag limit on the first day and double the daily bag limit on the second day. The possession limits are enforced on and off the water.

The lobster carapace must be larger than 3 inches and measured in the water. Participants are required to possess and use a measuring device at all times. To learn how to measure a spiny lobster, visit myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/measurement/.

Harvest of lobster is prohibited in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park during mini-season and in Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, no-take areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, in the Biscayne Bay/Card Sound Lobster Sanctuary, and in the five Coral Reef Protection areas in Biscayne National Park during both the two-day sport season and regular season.

Ramsay pointed out that marine thefts commonly happen in the Keys and thieves may see mini-season as an opportunity to target people who aren’t careful. Participants should remove electronics, fishing and diving gear from boats when not using them and securely store the gear.

The sheriff’s office also will have extra patrols at boat ramps, bridges and on the water. All of the sheriff’s office boats will be on patrol and deputies will also be operating a number of personal watercrafts.

Mini-season participants are required to have a recreational saltwater fishing license and a spiny lobster permit for harvesting. Additional information about licenses and permits is available myfwc.com/License.

“Everyone needs to be aware of the law and act in a safe, responsible manner, especially while on the water,” Ramsay said. “Please follow the COVID-19-related rules regarding face masks and social distancing. Be patient, be safe and have fun.”

Dube said boater safety is a primary concern for the FWC.

“Boaters should be conducting a 360-degree scan, because divers can get whisked away in the current or they might be chasing a lobster and they could end up a mile away from their boat. You need to maintain a constant look out. If you’re a boat operator and you see a dive flag, you need to come down to an idle speed within 100 feet,” he said.

Overall, Dube anticipates this lobster mini-season to be like most, with a few changes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not going to be any different for us, other than our officers will be wearing masks when out on patrol,” Dube said.

dkelly@keynews.com

Staff writer Jill Zima Borski contributed to this report.