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Surveying Recreational Lobster Fishers

lobster underwater

During the late summer months, Florida Keys residents usually enjoy a reprieve from the typical, continuous deluge of visitors. The hotels lower their rates; residents leave the Keys for vacations of their own, and the buzz of mosquitoes can be heard in the night air. However, on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July, all of this laid-back Keys quiet time suddenly changes. These two days are perhaps the busiest boating days of the year in Monroe County. It is the time of the Special Two-Day Lobster Sport Season.

The Special Two-Day Sport Season draws snorklers and divers from all walks of life to South Florida, but primarily to the Keys, to fish for spiny lobster. The influx of visitors to the Keys is reminiscent of the great land rush by American Pioneers scrambling to settle the old west. Recreational lobster divers are not much different, except they arrive in SUVs, towing boats, not prairie schooners. Scientists Rod Bertelsen and Bill Sharp from the South Florida Regional Laboratory are responsible for monitoring the recreational lobster fishery in Florida that includes the Special Two-Day season and the regular lobster season (August 6 through March 31). They have developed a system using information gathered during saltwater fishing license purchases and through the sale of lobster licenses, both of which are required to recreationally fish for lobsters. The recreational lobster survey, conducted each fishing season, begins by randomly selecting 5,000 individuals who purchased lobster licenses. Each person selected is then mailed a survey to the address they listed when they purchased their license. The survey asks an assortment of questions to assess the regions of the State fished, number of people fishing with the surveyed person, satisfaction of fishing experience, individual and group fishing success and overall impression of the lobster season. Since the inception of the recreational survey in 1991, Bertelsen and Sharp have consistently had over 60% of those surveyed respond. Those responding to the survey provide a critical link to assist in the management of this fishery and their efforts are very much appreciated. The following is the summary of information collected from the nearly 2,000 respondents about the Special Two-Day Sport Season and the first month of the regular season for the 1999-2000 fishing season.

The Florida Keys were the most popular destination for survey respondents. About 57% of the respondents that resided outside the Keys and participated in either the Special Two-Day Sport Season or first month of the regular season, fished in the Keys. The Keys were an especially popular fishing destination with those respondents that resided on the northeast and west coasts of Florida, the Florida Panhandle, the central inland portion of the state, and non-Florida residents. About 75% of respondents residing in those areas fished in the Keys. Respondents that resided along the southeast coast of Florida typically divided their fishing efforts between their local waters and the Keys. Most respondents that resided in the Keys and fished, did so in the Keys. Respondents that fished in the Keys during the Special Two-Day Sport Season were generally evenly disbursed from Key Largo to Key West, and most fished close to shore.

Most survey respondents were either relatively new to the sport (about 47% had fished for lobsters fewer than six years) or highly experienced (22% of respondents indicated they had fished for lobsters more than 14 years). We asked recipients of our Special Season Survey to describe the vessel they used. More than 92% of those that responded to that question fished from their own boat and about 7% fished from a rental boat. A few respondents fished from shore.

Most survey respondents indicated they were satisfied with their fishing experience during the Special Two-Day Sport Season. Almost 70% of respondents that fished indicated that they were either somewhat or very satisfied, whereas only 14% indicated that they were somewhat or very dissatisfied. Satisfaction levels were slightly lower during the first month of the regular season. About 64% of respondents indicated that they were somewhat to very satisfied, and 20% indicated that they were somewhat to very dissatisfied with their experiences.

Our preliminary harvest estimates are that approximately 432,000 lobsters were caught statewide during the Special Two-Day Sport Season and that approximately 1.5 million lobsters were caught during the first month of the regular season (opening day through Labor Day). Nearly 47,000 people fished during the Special Two-Day Sport Season and approximately 57,000 people fished at some time during the first month of the regular season. Most of the lobster harvest occurred in south Florida. About 70% of the lobsters harvested during the Special Two-Day Sport Season and 61% of those harvested during the first month of the regular season were caught by people fishing in the Keys. Most of the remaining portion of the lobster harvest during both the Special Two-Day Sport Season and regular season occurred in Dade and Broward counties.

Recreational lobster fishers catch nearly 2 million pounds of lobster each year, averaging about 22% of the total lobster landings. In recent years, the combined commercial and recreational landings of lobster has averaged approximately 9 million pounds. In 1999, 1,030 commercial lobster fishermen landed almost 7 million pounds of lobster, primarily through the use of lobster traps, although an increasing percentage of commercially caught lobster are landed by divers.

Almost half of the respondents of our Special Two-Day Sport Season survey believed that the season should continue under the current regulations. However, almost 16% of the respondents believed the Special Two-Day Sport Season should be discontinued entirely. Recipients of our regular season survey had virtually identical opinions. About 49% indicated that the Special Two-Day Season should continue under the current regulations, and 16% felt it should be discontinued.

The recreational lobster harvest provides an opportunity for everyone with a license to join the excitement in pursuing these tasty crustaceans. Although there is a multitude of fishers who travel to the Keys and South Florida towing expensive boats and staying in comfortable hotels, there are just as many families who are traveling on a shoestring budget and snorkling from a 14' jon boat they carry on the roof of their car. The challenge of lobster fishery managers is to balance the enthusiasm of the recreational effort and the intense commercial pressure on lobsters from professional fishermen with the even greater importance of protecting and managing the unique ecosystems of South Florida and the Keys. Finding and maintaining this balance in the steadily and rapidly growing coastal communities of South Florida is a delicate process. Scientists at FMRI are dedicated in developing sound scientific information to effectively manage the Spiny Lobster fishery.