A few minutes after midnight Wednesday, dozens of boats with bright lights shining in the water dotted Cowpens Cut in Islamorada. On board, people were sticking long-poled nets in the shallows and bringing up lobster from the bottom. The process is known as bully netting.
It was the start to this year’s lobster miniseason, a two-day event held every year during the final Wednesday and Thursday in July that sees thousands of people head to South Florida and the Florida Keys to catch spiny lobster. The crustacean is a delicacy locally and as far abroad as Asia.
Just minutes before, officers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission patrolled through the night in the Keys backcountry searching for people trying to get in on the action early.
Death and injury on the water
Miniseason can be a dangerous time for divers hunting lobsters.
A man died Wednesday morning after losing consciousness in the water at Sawyer Key in the Lower Keys, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. He was preparing to dive for lobster when he began to struggle in the water. The man, whom police didn’t immediately identify, was taken to Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West where he was pronounced dead.
Also on Wednesday morning, a man was airlifted to a Miami-area hospital after his leg was struck by a boat propeller, the sheriff’s office said. He was brought to shore on Cudjoe Key and then to Sugarloaf Key where he was met by a Trauma Star crew.
By 5 p.m. Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said no other major incidents had been reported.
Breaking the law?
In the final hours of Tuesday night, FWC officers found most people obeying the law, and no arrests were made in the Keys.
By Wednesday evening, though, at least two people in the Keys had been jailed for having oversized lobsters, said Adam Linhardt, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
Officers had also written multiple lobster-related citations.
“Undersized or over the limit,” Linhardt said. “Seems like a lot of undersized. It seems like we’re writing more citations this year than we have in recent years.”
FWC spokesman Officer Bobby Dube said Wednesday evening that quite a few citations had been written.
“The weather is about as good as it can get,” Dube said. “Beautiful weather, no wind, good visibility. Everyone is spread out, bayside and oceanside, which is a good thing.”
Lobstering just one minute before the start of miniseason is a second-degree misdemeanor, which could land violators in jail for up to 60 days and a fine of up to $500. And Keys prosecutors are known for seeking stiff penalties for rule breakers.
“We’re just checking to make sure everybody stays within the rules and regulations and does it right,” said FWC Officer Joshua Stallings.
Some people here for miniseason waited patiently on their boats for the clock to strike midnight. Brian Parsons, Stephen Hansman and Cory Gallagher from Fort Myers planned to wait even longer. That’s because instead of bully netting, they planned to snorkel for lobster, and the law prohibits night diving for the hunt.
The friends sat in Parson’s 31-foot Contender open fisherman boat patiently waiting for the sun to come up.
“It’s what we’ve been doing for 10 years,” Parsons said.
Recently, however, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and other law enforcement agencies have increased patrols, especially in the Keys. FWC Lt. Paul Hein, 33, who rode along with 30-year-old Stallings late Tuesday and early Wednesday, said up to 20 officers assigned to other counties were sent to the Keys for this year’s miniseason to make sure people stayed safe and followed the rules.
“We’ve really stepped up our presence out here,” Hein said.
In the Keys, the bag limit for spiny lobster is six per person, per boat. In the rest of the state, with the exception of Biscayne National Park, the limit is 12 lobsters per person, per vessel. Lobsters must be measured in the water, and their carapace — the part that is not the tail — must be longer than three inches. Tails must measure 5 1/2 inches long.
All lobsters must be brought back to shore in one piece.
It didn’t take long for some lobster hunters to reach their limit early Wednesday. They included local father-and-son team Steve and Reece Jahn of Plantation Key Colony.
“I think we got it in 30 minutes. We got lucky this year,” Steve Jahn, 44, said.
To get a better view of the crustaceans below, Steve and Reece, who is 16, installed a stepladder on the deck of their flats boat, similar to vessels called tower boats.
“I had a little time on our hands and a ladder. And, we wanted to do well, so when it was a little slow, he climbs up there and looks, and then I crawl down and grab one,” the elder Jahn said. “We do it safe and slow, too. It’s pretty cool, man.”
Judging from traffic in Florida City heading south along the 18 Mile Stretch of U.S. 1 into Key Largo Tuesday night, it’s looking like it will be a busy miniseason.
At the Race Trac gas station in Florida City, almost all the fuel pumps were occupied with cars and trucks pulling boats on trailers.
Orlando friends Josh Yablon and his 12-year-old son Dylan, Tory Veigle, Drew McGucking and Trey Krits were filling up a large center console boat, as well as an RV. They were heading down to Lower Matecumbe Key for the week, not just to limit out on spiny lobster, but also to fish.
Veigle’s 6-year-old son Beckham, though, wasn’t too jazzed on catching lobster. He had his sights set on something more toothy.
“Barracuda,” he yelled out when his dad asked him what he wanted to fish for.