Up and down the Florida coast today, there was a game of underwater cat and mouse. The quarry: the spiny Florida lobster, the tropical cousin of the Atlantic lobster found off the coast of Maine. Unlike their northern cousins, these lobsters have no claws but the tail meat is a delicacy.
Fishermen try to snag their prey with nets standing on the bow of their boats, others from water snorkeling or with scuba tanks. They are not quite as easy to catch as you might think … but that's the fun of it.
Today was the first day of the annual Florida ritual known as lobster mini-season, a 48-hour frenzy. Anyone with a license can fish for these lobsters nine months a year, but this little mini-season is so popular because it gives recreational fisherman a two-day headstart on the commercial fishery.
How to Hunt
Bob Schneider was scuba diving today in 20 feet of water, delicately trying to navigate one particularly evasive lobster into his net. He surfaced victorious, pulled the lobster from the net saying, "Sometimes they don't really want to get in your net."
In places today it felt as if everyone in the state was after the same lobster as boats loaded with snorkelers and scuba divers converged on prime lobstering spots. An estimated 20,000 people descended on the waters of the Florida Keys for this mini-lobster hunting season. Thousands more are doing the same thing on the coasts farther north. Fortunately, it seems there are more than enough lobsters to go around.
Timur Tugcu grew up lobstering in the Keys. Today he was out with with his parents, his sister and a friend in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico just off Key Largo. After just half an hour of snorkeling he returned to the boat, lugging a bag bulging with lobsters -- "probably about 12 or 15," he estimated.
He dumped them onto the deck, where they twisted and writhed at his feet as he measured to make sure they met the legal minimum size. That's not a problem … these are big lobsters, some are 2 pounds or more.
So what's the secret to Tugcu's success? He said it's all about the antennae.
"We drive around. We're looking in the grass, and then there are these white holes," he explained. "And once you find the white holes, a lot of times you just see the antennae sticking out … the water's so clear."
But once you find the lobsters, you still have to catch them.
"You stick behind the lobster," Tugcu explained, showing us how he uses what's called a "tickle stick" to direct the wary lobster, "and you kind of get him turned so that he'll go into your net … and they'll just scoot … fly right into your net."
Fellow hunter Richard Kowalski demonstrated his approach.
"You put the net behind their tail, and then you basically just tap them in the front and [their] natural response is to go backward … and then you just scoop them up and you grab them."
The annual insanity begins at the stroke of midnight on the last Wednesday of July.
Not a minute is lost. Like nocturnal pirates, fishermen armed with nets and bright lights scramble to fill their quota: six per person per day in the Florida Keys, 12 per person per day in the rest of the state.
Inevitably, the day's fun is marred by tragedy. Last year five people were killed in the two-day free for all. And this year the first reported death came just after sunrise today.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office said in a written statement that a Venice, Fla., man had died this morning after running into difficulty while diving near the Contents Keys off the gulf side of Cudjoe Key. Cardio pulmonary resuscitation was performed, and the man was transported by ambulance to Lower Keys Hospital, which pronounced him dead on arrival. An autopsy will determine the cause of his death.
As to why so many die during this 48-hour period each year, Bobby Dube, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said, "We'd have to go by the fact that the people who come down here are just inexperienced and out of shape."
Dube points out that hunting lobsters isn't as simple as it might look.
"You come out here with the sea conditions and the current, and all the equipment that you're wearing while trying to harvest lobster is very heavy and very stressful," he said.
"You have to be in pretty good shape to catch lobster, whether you're diving down for them or chasing one. It can be very rigorous at times."
Despite the hazards, lobster mini-season has become an annual rite of summer for tens of thousands in this state.