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Off-Limits Fishing Areas Protect Lobsters In Florida Keys

Ed Hunter (352) 392-1773 x 278

Douglas Gregory, (305) 292-4501
John Hunt (305) 289-2330

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KEY WEST — New results from an ongoing study show marine reserves — sections of ocean off-limits to harvesting of all sea life — are effective at protecting Florida’s spiny lobster, allowing the tasty crustaceans to grow larger and reproduce at a greater rate, according a University of Florida scientist.

“During the first two years of a project funded by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, we have seen small increases in the abundance and size of lobsters inside the closed area,” said Douglas Gregory, Monroe County Sea Grant extension agent with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “The reserve provides some protection to lobsters near the end of the fishing season in February and March.

“This is when lobsters molt before they reproduce in the summer and it coincides with the less migratory part of the year,” he said.

A five-year UF and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission project is examining lobsters in the West Sambos Ecological Reserve, a nine-square-mile section of ocean south of Boca Chica Key in the Florida Keys. Researchers have spent two years diving and trapping lobsters in the reserve, but now need the help of area fisherman during the sport lobster season Thursday and Friday and the commercial lobster season, which opens Aug. 6.

“When fishermen catch a tagged lobster, we want them to call the phone number on the tag to report the tag number and where they caught the lobster,” Gregory said. “We want to determine the relative abundance and size distribution of lobsters in the reserve compared to lobsters outside the reserve.

“We also want to look at the movement of lobsters in and out of the reserve, to see if the reserve is holding lobsters and creating a benefit or if lobsters are migrating into the reserve from other areas,” he said.

But researchers are interested in more than just numbers of lobsters and their size.

Once the project is complete, Gregory said, it is important that the fishing public find the results credible. To meet that goal, researchers began the sentinel lobster project by contracting with a local commercial fisherman for the twice-a-year trips to place traps and measure lobsters.

“Because the program involves a local commercial fisherman using his own gear, our results should be understandable and believable by other fishermen in the area more than if we just did research by diving,” Gregory said. “One of the expected benefits of the reserve is that recreational and commercial fishermen fishing next to the closed area will see increases both in their normal catch rates and lobster size.

“This would, in effect, counter the loss fishermen initially experienced when the area was originally closed and they had to move to adjacent areas,” he said.

John Hunt, a research administrator with the commission’s Florida Marine Research Institute, said marine reserves offer more benefits than just larger lobsters.

“Marine reserves preserve a slice of the marine wilderness in the same way national parks preserve a slice of wilderness for future generations,” Hunt said. “I think this is a very important step for us to take in order to save the marine environment for the future.”

According to Hunt, marine reserves can help protect all marine species from the ravages of man.

“In marine reserves, fish tend to grow larger and have increased spawning potential,” Hunt said. “In a variety of ways they have the potential to be an excellent insurance policy for fish.

“If a disaster kills a large number of fish, a marine reserve can be the place where the recovery of that population begins,” he said.

While research on the Western Sambos reserve continues, Hunt points to Dry Tortugas National Park as an example of the long-term effects of protecting lobster populations. Commercial lobster fishing was banned in the park west of Key West in the 1950s, and recreational fishermen were limited to two lobsters per day. All recreational harvesting of lobsters was stopped in the mid-1970s.

“Since prohibition on all harvest in the park, the difference in size between males and females has grown dramatically,” Hunt said. “The males are now much larger than the females, and this is very important because female lobsters prefer to mate with the larger males.

“Before recreational fishing was limited in the Dry Tortugas, there were a large number of females that did not carry eggs, and today 100 percent of them carry eggs during the spawning season,” he said.