The spiny lobster: A coveted crustacean

About Guy 

Halfway through my regular Sunday morning dive I was trying to snap a beautiful queen angelfish when I heard Jessica’s excited babbling in her regulator. My daughter had found something she wanted me to see.

I paddled on over as a school of cero mackerel whizzed by, and in front of Jessica was a cloud of fine sand. From the white powder emerged two large lobsters. Apparently one was trying to mate with the other and there seemed to be some discussion whether or not this was actually going to happen!

Back in the boat, Jessica commented on how many lobsters she had seen on the dive. I explained that this was probably the result of the new conservation regulations affecting lobsters in the Cayman Islands since 2003.

The spiny lobster is a crustacean related to crabs, shrimp and crayfish. Its shell and legs are jointed and it has five pairs of legs. The spiny lobster is also called crawfish or crayfish, and it lacks the claws seen in the true American lobster. In the western Atlantic there are six species of spiny lobster, of which Panulirus argus is the largest and economically most important throughout the Caribbean.

Numerous spines cover the head and carapace, with two large hooked horns over the eyes. Lobsters have many predators apart from man, so the spines help deter some predators such as cubera snappers, triggerfish, stingrays, nurse sharks and large octopus.

The long antennae are jointed, like the legs, and are usually the first part of a lobster that a snorkeler or diver will see sticking out from under a piece of coral. The antennae are important for helping the animal detect food or predators, and will easily break off if grabbed.

The tail is segmented and can be curled up beneath the lobster. The curling is used to propel the animal backwards very rapidly, usually when it is trying to escape. The lobster moves by walking forward or sideways. It is a beautifully marked species with browns, yellows, orange, green, blue and violet. Every one is unique and while I love to paint lobsters, they present an unusual challenge because of their detail and coloration.

They may grow to as much as fifteen pounds in weight, but lobsters over five pounds are uncommon.

The lobster is a secretive species by day, emerging from under ledges, crevices and holes to feed at night. They eat anything they can get in the way of molluscs, crustaceans, and even their own young. As a kid fishing off the rocks at night in my native Jamaica, I used to catch lobsters that were just hanging on to the bait, and would not let go!

The breeding season is between February and April and in June and July. The male fertilizes the eggs which are then attached beneath the female’s abdomen. Shortly afterwards, the fertilized eggs are released to float on the mercy of the ocean currents. After hatching, the young lobster undergoes a series of transformations as it floats near the surface.

Many months later, as a planktonic larva, the young lobster may end up a thousand miles from where it hatched, hence good spawning around one Caribbean island will affect recruitment of new individuals on neighboring islands, or other islands a thousand miles downstream in the current. Eventually the young are carried inshore where they complete their development among sheltered grassy flats and shallow coralline flats.

Lobsters grow very slowly, and as with all crustaceans, the shell is shed and a new one is grown in stages. The slow growth rate and high incidence of cannibalism in captivity has prevented successful commercial farming of the spiny lobster.

Adult lobsters may migrate over long distances, at a speed of a mile per day. Most migrations are between shallow and deep water. In Grand Cayman they can be seen on a regular basis moving from North Sound out to the deep reef and back through the channels in the reef. At times, usually in the spring, spectacular migrations of lobsters are sometimes seen by divers, in which hundreds of lobsters migrate in single file, at times in columns from shallow water to deep water possibly in a pre-spawning migration.

All species of spiny lobsters are delicious to eat, so there is a heavy demand for them worldwide. As they become scarcer, so the market price increases, and they are usually the most expensive item in any restaurant.

Various methods used for fishing for spiny lobsters include the use of wooden slat traps, wire traps, and spearing. In the Caribbean, artisanal fishermen may lay old pipes, concrete conduits, drums, and other discarded building material to provide shelter in the shallows from which lobsters are harvested. Most Caribbean islands now have strict laws to prevent over-fishing, though enforcement of these regulations is often the weakest link.

Spending some time serving with the Jamaica Defence Force Coast Guard in the late 70s and early 80s was quite an experience for me. One of our routine jobs was fisheries protection, conducted mostly south of Jamaica out on Pedro Bank. Honduran and Nicaraguan lobster boats would routinely fish lobsters and conch illegally. These converted 80 foot shrimp boats often had sixty people on board, and most were teenage divers, conducting multiple dives per day, without the necessary decompression stops, and many got badly bent. In addition, their fishing practice was wasteful, tearing off and keeping the tail while discarding the head.

They would also set miles of wooden slat traps using cow hide as bait for the lobsters. I can assure you that to go into the hold of such a fishing boat was a memorable experience. When you sit in a restaurant and order a lobster, do you ever ask the waiter if he knows where it came from, or how it was caught?

Outside of lobster season, lobsters we consume here are imported from the Bahamas, Jamaica and Central America to supply the demand in local restaurants and supermarkets.

We are fortunate in The Cayman Islands that the current laws are adequate, and there is enforcement. According to Tim Austin of the Department of the Environment, “the lobster situation in Cayman seems to relatively stable at the moment. The 2002 amendments to the Marine Conservation Law have played a large part in the stabilization and the possible increase in local numbers of lobsters.”

The closed season was extended by three months and the start date was shifted from February to March to allow better protection of spawning lobsters at the end of the summer. In the amended 2002 Marine conservation law, closed season is now nine months, March to November, and there is also a reduction in the catch limit per person from five to three individual animals per day. Minimum size remains at a tail length of six inches.

In the Cayman Islands, only the spiny lobster may be taken, with all other species such as the chicken lobster and Dutch (slipper) lobster being protected. Lobsters are protected in all marine protected zones all year round. No lobster or fish may be taken using SCUBA gear.

It is our collective responsibility to conserve all marine creatures, and maintain the biodiversity that exists on this planet. Fish responsibly dive safely.