… If you love lobsters, leave them alone

On Sunday, April 1, the Caribbean Spiny Lobster season in Jamaica closed. Until June 30, it is illegal to catch, sell or possess lobsters or lobster meat. If you are caught, the penalties include fines and possibly jail time. Restaurants and sellers must report their March 31 lobster stock to Fisheries and have it inspected and certified. They have three weeks to dispose of it. After April 21, the strict ban applies to almost everybody.

Licensed fishers may store lobster beyond April 21 if that stock is meant to fill orders after the closed season. However, this requires a special application, which must include an exact description of what’s being stored, a declaration that the product is to be sold or processed after the closed season (together with details of existing purchase orders or export permits) and the name and address of the intended (approved) storage facility. These producers can’t get at their stored inventory until July 1.

It’s also illegal for anyone to keep live lobsters captive in any holding devices during the closed season, and any accidentally taken in fish nets or traps must be released unharmed. It is illegal at any time of year to take “berried” lobsters – females carrying eggs – or undersized lobsters – those measuring less than three inches (7.62 centimeters) from the eyes to the end of the back.

Why all the fuss, and why just for these few months? At this time of year, there are two things Caribbean spiny lobsters must do to survive. First, they moult. They swell up their bodies with water, so their hard old shells crack off and the soft new shell underneath stretches to make room for another year’s growth.

While the new shells are hardening, the lobsters mate. Mother lobsters attach their fertilized eggs under their bodies and carry them around for about four weeks, until they are hard and ready to hatch. A lot of the baby lobsters will be eaten before they can settle back into the reef to start growing up. Only about 1% will survive to reach minimum size, but the closed season at least gives them a chance to be born.

This little bit of protection, which has been in place for a long time, may be part of the reason why the lobster population hasn’t been wiped out along with most of Jamaica’s other marine life. The tax on lobster exports should give Government an incentive to make sure that this fishery doesn’t fail.

In fact, closed seasons covering the main local spawning period for lobsters and other creatures are used all over the world. The closed season as a conservation measure is simple to enact, explain and enforce. Whether it works depends on how well it is enforced, and whether it is backed up by other fishery management measures.
Jamaica’s leading fisheries management issue for the last decade is the need to replace the 42-year-old Fisheries Act with something that reflects the realities of the current century. An important priority in the new Act is dealing with unlicensed, unregulated and unreported fishing, including poaching by foreign boats. Conservative estimates suggest that Jamaica loses more than US$10 million per year from poaching of spiny lobsters on the Pedro Banks.
A well-managed lobster fishery needs three other things. First, it needs real regulation, based on a limited annual catch from all areas. Second, it needs a properly enforced system of protected areas, where lobsters can grow big and old and have millions of babies. Fish sanctuaries are proven lobster factories. Third, it needs a national policy of habitat conservation.

At all ages, lobsters need clean water. The baby lobsters need mangroves and seagrass beds to hide in while they grow. And they need healthy coral reefs where the adults can live and breed. Too many of these valuable areas have been destroyed to make room for resorts where guests complain about the high price of lobster. If we really want healthy marine life, including lots of big lobsters, the process has to start with better management on land.