July 18, 2023
It’s no secret that the Florida Keys is the state’s premiere destination for recreational lobstering. The rich bounty of spiny lobsters, dependable clear water, vast habitat and shoreside services for divers are unparalleled.
What’s essential to maintaining that appeal? Knowing and adhering to the harvest rules and regulations, some of which are unique to Monroe County and the Keys. Sustainable harvest, ensuring the lobster population repopulates itself year after year, is the guiding principal behind seasons, bag limits and size limits. State, local and federal agencies also take into account human safety. These agencies regularly publish regulations and recommendations for gear and practices that minimize risks associated with diving and boating. Another vital concern: Preserving the unique habitats and ecology associated with the area. That means heeding the guidelines and area restrictions set by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, National Parks and other agencies.
Most of what you’ll need to find you’ll find at www.KeysLobsterSeason.com. The dedicated website features videos highlighting dive and boating safety tips, up-to-date rules and regulations for lobster harvesting within the Keys such as daily limits, and emphasizes avoiding prohibited no-take zones protected within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary boundaries.
Sustainability: Lobster Season, Size Limits, Bag Limits & More
Lobster harvest regulations are set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The commission incorporates advice from marine biologists, annual harvest reports and other sources to make catch limits that allow for human enjoyment without upsetting the balance needed to keep spiny lobsters and other marine organisms in healthy numbers that support annual abundance.
For starters, most harvesters need a Saltwater Fishing license and a lobster permit. There are some exemptions.
Whether you’re exempt or not, investing in a license and lobster permit helps fund important research, enforcement and other initiatives that promote sustainable fishing.
The seasons are easy to understand and are the same all around Florida, including Monroe County and the Keys:
Each year, a special two-day period, for recreational or “sport” harvest only, is set aside before the regular season. It occurs on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of each year. This year, 2023, Spiny Lobster Sport Season will be July 26-27. Some call it the “mini season.”
The Regular Spiny Lobster Season opens August 6 and runs through March 31.
One small but important season detail specific to Monroe County: No night diving in Monroe County during the mini season. (In some parts of Florida, adventurous divers using specialized lighting systems get an early jump on the mini season, taking the plunge after midnight on July 26. Not legal in the Keys.)
Minimum size is also easy to understand and uniform: A “keeper” spiny lobster’s carapace must be larger than 3 inches measured in the water. Possession and use of a measuring device required at all times. You can pick up the correct measuring devices at dive shops and tackle shops—they are inexpensive and easy to find.
Bag limits (how many lobsters one harvester may take) differ regionally in one important aspect: During the sport or mini season, the bag limit in Monroe County and Biscayne National Park is 6 per person. In the rest of Florida, the sport season limit is 12 per person. During the regular season, starting August 6, the limit statewide is 6.
Some other vital rules that help keep spiny lobster populations robust:
- They must be landed in whole condition. No separating the tail from the body while at sea.
- No taking or possession of egg-bearing spiny lobsters (or any other egg-bearing lobsters—and that includes the delicious slipper lobster sometimes found by attentive divers).
- No harvesting or attempting to harvest spiny lobster using any device that will or could puncture, penetrate or crush the shell or flesh. That includes spears, gigs, hooks, etc.
- Monroe County and Biscayne National Park sport season possession limit: A 2-day limit (6 per day) of spiny lobster can only be possessed when transporting the catch by car on or after the second day of the sport season.
- Recreational trapping is prohibited. It’s also against the law to damage, molest or take lobster from traps in state or federal waters. Like ‘em or not, those commercial lobster traps, with their buoys dotting the horizon, are the source of family income. “Trap-robbing” is a felony offense. Stay away from the gear.
Safety: Dive Flags, Diver Safety, Smart Boating Practices
Diver-down flags must be used and heeded! The consequences of a boat striking a diver are severe, often resulting in permanent injury or death.
Be sure to pick up a Florida-approved diver-down flag. Put it up when diving and take it down when underway. Florida state law says: In open water, divers should stay within 300 feet (100 yards) of a properly displayed diver-down flag. Near navigational channels or inlet, that radius should be reduced to 100 feet. Stay close to your dive flag! Keep an eye on your divers. The law also says boaters traveling within 300 feet of a diver-down flag in open water, or 100 feet near a channel, must slow to idle. Always keep a lookout!
Authorities also advise wearing a life jacket when underway. And as always, do not drink alcohol and drive a boat.
Dive safety gear and practices are extremely important, and authorities in the Florida Keys are quick to remind locals and visitors to brush up on scuba or freediving skills to avoid preventable problems such as the bends or shallow water blackout. Divers should also be in good physical health and be confident in the quality of their gear. Emergency signaling devices are a smart carry, due to the strong currents which sometimes run along the Keys reefs.
Consistent with efforts to manage crowds and minimize conflicts with vessel traffic, there are some local ordinances in the Keys:
During the July two-day sport season (July 26-27, 2023) and regular lobster season (Aug. 6, 2023-March 31, 2024) no snorkeling or diving is allowed within 300 feet of residential or commercial shoreline. This includes canals and any public or private marinas.
- In Marathon, this local rule applies during the two-day sport season.
- In Key Colony Beach, this local rule applies during the four days preceding sport season and continues until 10 days have elapsed after the opening of regular season.
- In unincorporated areas of Monroe County and Key West, this local rule applies during the three days preceding sport season, the entirety of sport season and the first five days of the regular season.
Taking a free online boating course is a great way to freshen up on boating skills essential to the safe enjoyment of the lobster seasons. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has a region-specific course that goes over all kinds of local tips.
Sanctuary: Tips to Preserve the Unique Habitats of the Florida Keys
There are several unique areas in the Florida Keys which come under special protection, but it’s important to treat ALL waters and all habitats with respect.
It’s against the law everywhere to touch coral, stand on coral or anchor on it. The coral habitat is vital to the ecology of the region and is under stress from a variety of sources. Even the scrape of a dive flipper can add to that stress. Use mooring buoys where available, or identify light-colored sandy areas before setting the anchor. Use the correct size anchor, chain and rode for your vessel—and bring enough for at least a 5-to-1 length-to-depth ratio. Too little anchor, too little line, can result in dragging and inadvertently contacting coral or other habitats.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has marked off a number of Preservation Areas and Special Use Research Only Areas, which are closed year-round for harvesting and are no-take zones. These are marked by 30-inch round yellow buoys.
Other areas closed year-round to lobster harvest include: Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, San Pedro Archeological State Park (Islamorada), Biscayne Bay Card Sound Spiny Lobster Sanctuary, City of Layton.
Additionally, artificial habitats in state waters (discarded barrels, car hoods, anything not naturally occurring) are off-limits to lobster harvest. Placing such materials is also prohibited. Lobster harvest acceptable at artificial reefs permitted by DEP or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—but usually not advisable there due to the vessel traffic in such areas.
You can read up on the specific Sanctuary Preservation Areas, Ecological Reserves and Special Use areas at www.KeysLobsterSeason.com.
Learn More About Lobster Season & the Florida Keys
Visit www.Keyslobsterseason.com for more facts and video explanations. Complete Florida saltwater harvest regulations may be found easily at www.myfwc.com/marine. The site also has links to license sales, or you may visit www.GoOutdoorsFlorida.com.
Know, too, that FWC officials, in partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other agencies, are to stage an information booth at Divers Direct, mile marker 100 oceanside, with hours of operation planned for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 22, through Tuesday, July 25. Staff are to demonstrate how to properly measure harvested lobsters and provide the latest lobster-catching rules and regulations.