Anybody who’s been in the Keys for Florida’s sport lobster season knows things can get crazy, so crazy that some people think the two-day event should be stopped.
According to a 2003 North Carolina State Universitystudy, the boat density during sport season, also known as mini-season, can be 900 times the density during the regular lobster season — sport season is the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday in July; the regular commercial and recreational season is Aug. 6 through March 31.
“From a law enforcement standpoint, the sport season is a lot busier than the regular season,” said Officer Bobby Dube of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “People come down for it from all over the country, Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, not to mention all over Florida.
“Over the years, we’ve had incidents where people have shot each other with spear guns because this guy said that guy was in his lobster hole. People have shot at each other with flare guns over a lobster hole.”
“We made a few cases this year, but nothing as egregious as that Fort Myers case,” Dube said. “Most people try to do the right thing, but people like this come down to poach lobsters. What baffles me is that he wasn’t down here with a couple of buddies saying, ‘Hey, let’s keep a couple of extra lobsters.’ He was doing it with his kids.”The most newsworthy incident during the 2015 mini-season was when Fort Myers attorney Steven Koeppel and his sons, John Koeppel, 24, and Kyle Koeppel, 22, were arrested July 29 near Islamorada for possessing 28 lobsters over the limit.
Florida established mini-season in 1974 as a way to reduce the conflict between recreational lobster hunters and commercial lobster fishermen; commercial fishermen can set their traps Aug. 1.“I go to the east coast for mini-season to get away from the craziness in the Keys,” said Ramiro Palma, owner of Scubavice Dive Center in Fort Myers. “It’s exciting to get out and catch your limit before the commercial guys start hitting it.”
In the 27 years Bob Beville, vice president of sales for Waterman Broadcasting, has been going lobster hunting in the Keys, he’s done mini-season twice.
“Mini-season is just too much of a zoo,” he said. “The last time I went was 10 or 12 years ago. It was bad way back then, just a lot of boats. You had to be careful. There were a lot of drunken people out there.”
Mike Horvath, owner of the Gulf View Resort on Grassy Key has been through plenty of mini-seasons.
An online petition to stop mini-season has collected more than 1,600 names in the past two weeks.
Anyone opposed to mini-season can speak at the regularly scheduled FWC meeting Sept. 2 and 3 at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina or can contact commissioners by email at Commissioners@myfwc.com, FWC spokeswoman Rebekah Nelson wrote in an email to The News-Press.
Ending mini-season wouldn’t require a referendum; the decision would be up to the FWC. Further, Monroe County could request that the FWC eliminate mini-season in waters off the county.
One reason some people want to get rid of mini-season is a possible negative effect on lobster populations: According to FWC statistics, 27 percent of the recreational lobster harvested over the past 10 seasons were taken during the two days of sport season.
During the same period, the sport season harvest was only 5 percent of the total recreational/commercial harvest.
“Mini-season is a non-issue for the lobster population,” FWC lobster expert Tom Matthews said. “There’s always a critique among people about mini-season. But mini-season is more about managing people than it is about the lobster population.”
Over the past 10 lobster seasons, the mini-season harvest has averaged 365,145 pounds; the regular season recreational harvest has averaged 984,967 pounds; the commercial harvest has averaged 6.01 million pounds.
“In terms of product availability, we have no problems with mini-season,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “What we’re concerned about is the pressure on the reef. You get 35,000 boats here for the two-day season. There haven’t been any assessments about the coral damage that takes place, but we know it’s substantial.”
Bad diver behavior during mini-season is a big issue, said Joe Weatherby, president of Artificial Reefs International.
“A frenzy takes over during sport season,” he said. “The complaint is about the people who come from out of town and don’t know how to catch a lobster or don’t care. They are very bad for the reef. People roll coral heads over to get a lobster and take too much and too small and don’t give a damn about the resource.”
Some business owners said stopping mini-season would wreck the economy.
“Sport season is a tradition that’s been around for many, many years,” said Wendy Hall, owner of Tilden’s Dive Center in Marathon. “It’s what the dive industry and many local hotels make their money on. We make more money that week than in six months. It would put us under if it shut down. A lot of mom-and-pop businesses would close if it shut down. It’s like Mardi Gras to New Orleans.”
Stephanie Champagne, receptionist at the Atlantic Bay Resort in Tavernier, disagreed.
“A lot of people who come down for mini-season don’t spend money here,” she said. “A lot of them camp. They don’t stay in hotels or shop at grocery stores. They go out on the water and do what they have to do to get their lobster, rape and pillage the reef, and then leave, and we’re left with their garbage. A lot of people here are sick of it.”
Jon Hazelbaker of Fort Myers Beach dives for lobster often in the Keys, including during mini-season and on opening day Aug. 6, and sees both sides of the debate.
“Mini-season is a problem, but what’s the solution?” he said. “My concern is what closing mini-season would do to the merchants. The lobster will be caught one way or another. If you eliminate mini-season, it will be just as crazy or crazier Aug. 6 when the regular season opens.
“I always hope for bad weather during mini-season to cut down on the boats on the water, and I go where the people aren’t.”