Having a seasonal “take” is designed to protect the California spiny lobster, which can live 50 years and grow up to 25 pounds, from being overfished during their summer reproductive cycle.
But there’s incentive to take advantage of the rules for catching lobsters — or avoid those rules all together. At a market value of $20 a pound, even the typical two- or three-pound specimen is worth catching.
Unlike its East Coast counterpart, however, the spiny lobster doesn’t have claws. But it’s still tricky snaring one, especially given divers are only allowed to use their bare (gloved) hands.
Zach Plopper, director of Wildcoast Conservation, an international team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife, noted lobsters are to be found amongst the 11 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in San Diego County, including four offshore in La Jolla.
California has 124 MPAs up and down the coast that are home to thousands of birds, mammals and fish. The MPAs have been set aside to provide safe havens for ocean life to replenish itself from overfishing and pollution.
Plopper pointed out there are law-abiding commercial lobster fishing businesses plying their trade from boats, laying down traps then retrieving them. And then there are the do-it-yourselfers going after the crustacean by hand on a much smaller scale.
“It’s not lobster poaching that’s so much of a concern as it is poaching of any species within a Marine Protected Area,” said Plopper, who noted that includes day-tripper boats escorting paying clients on fishing trips that sometimes stray illegally into MPAs.
“That’s a problem,” noted the Wildcoast spokesman, who warned penalties for illegal poaching of lobsters, or anything else, in an MPA are stiff.
“Fines can go from $100 to $1,000,” Plopper said, while pointing out those fines are relatively small considering day-tripper boats can make $10,000 to $20,000 on a good excursion.
The wildlife conservationist noted there have been some very high-profile cases of successful prosecution of lobster poaching.
“We had one instance where somebody took 250 spiny lobsters out of the South La Jolla MPA and was prosecuted by the City Attorney and thrown in jail,” Plopper said. “That’s poaching on a commercial scale, and lobsters like that end up on the black market, and in someone’s restaurant, probably.”
Poaching is most prevalent in San Diego during summer months, said Plopper.
Plopper noted it is important to preserve the integrity of MPAs because,“These are proven replenishment zones where the fish populations are coming back, which is especially important with climate change and diminishment of bait-fish species.”
“Overfishing is being addressed by MPAs,” pointed out Plopper who concluded, “There’s only a small percentage of bad actors out there. But they ruin it for everybody.”
Rules for lobster catching
Catch lobsters by hand. No nets, spears or other tools allowed.
Lobsters must be a certain length, giving babies the chance to grow into adults and spawn. Spiny lobsters must be at least 3.25 inches from eye socket to the rear end of the shell to catch them legally. No measuring on shore is allowed.
You can only catch lobster you plan on eating. The lobster must be kept in a whole, measurable condition until being prepared for immediate consumption. That means you must have a cooler or other storage facility waiting on shore to transport them into.
You’re only allowed to catch seven spiny lobsters in one outing while diving in San Diego. You must document this on a spiny lobster report card that you get through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Keep this report card with your fishing license in case you are asked to show it by officials after diving.
Residents and visitors alike (16 years and older) are required to have a valid California Sportfishing License.