Spiny lobsters are sold fresh live and frozen in raw tails and meat, as well as whole (either blanched or fully cooked). Spiny lobsters are typically graded by the ounce and fresh supply is mostly available before the new year. These warmwater lobster tails will be smooth and have a spotted, greenish shell. Spiny lobsters have a soft texture, delicate flavor, and are frequently marketed as warmwater tails. The quality and texture of warmwater lobster tails varies considerably depending on handling. Unlike American lobster, spiny lobsters have a spiny hard shell for protection and lack large front claws. Buyer Beware: Avoid diver-caught tails that are mushy and textured from sitting too long on a boat. Some buyers recommend finding trusted brands and sticking with them since some producers add weight with excessive glaze or a tripoly solution soak.
Key Caribbean spiny lobster sustainability notes for landing totals from 2012-2014:
The split in landings between the U.S. and Mexico is ~3:1
The U.S. ranks 6th in global landings at ~5% (~90% of the landings come from the Florida gulf coast); Bahamas and Belize alternate 1 & 2 with about 20% of global landings each
~2% of global landings receive a "Best Choice (green)" Seafood Watch rating (casita-caught ufrom Mexico)
~25% of global landings receive a "Good Alternative (yellow)" Seafood Watch rating (~80% from Bahamas and ~20% from the U.S.)
~45% of global landings receive an "Avoid (red)" Seafood Watch rating (~40% from Brazil and ~30% each from Honduras and Nicaragua)
~25% of global landings are not rated (~50% from Cuba, ~30% from the Dominican Republic, and the rest from several other countries)
Caribbean spiny lobsters are covered with forward-pointing spines to protect themselves from predators. Long, horn-like antennae above their eyes are used to scare off predators by rubbing them together to make a screeching noise, known as the “stick and slip” mechanism. Smaller “antennules” are used to sense movement and detect pheromones or chemicals in the waters, such as when eggs are ready to hatch. The antennules fold alongside their body when not in use. Unlike the American lobster, they lack large front claws. Caribbean spiny lobsters can also detect magnetic fields, which they use for migration. They have large compound eyes, and are able to sense light, color, and movement.
Spiny lobsters are thought to live 15 years or more, but scientists are unsure. They can grow up to 15 pounds and longer than three feet (one meter). Lobsters grow by molting. They shed their old shells while simultaneously absorbing water, thus expanding their body size. Within the first five to seven years of their life, they will molt about 25 times. Once they are older, they molt once per year. It takes them about two years to grow to legal harvesting size.
Females begin reproducing when they’ve reached between 2.5 to four inches (six to ten cm) in length. They spawn throughout the year in the Caribbean, and from April through September in the Florida Keys. The male spiny lobster deposits sperm packets on the underside of the female, who scratches them to release the sperm as she releases her eggs. The female can produce between 500,000 and 1.7 million eggs at each spawning period. She carries the fertilized eggs beneath her tail, and is considered “berried.” The eggs hatch in four weeks and the larvae float with the current, moving into shallow waters with sea grass. It takes about six months for the larvae to molt and metamorphose into juvenile lobsters.
Young spiny lobsters feed on soft-bodied plankton. Juveniles and adults are carnivores. Spiny lobsters eat at night, preying on snails, crabs, and clams. The lobster’s coloring is determined by the foods they eat; green algae is more common in shallow waters and red algae is more likely to be found in deeper waters. Caribbean lobsters range from red to brown and blue in color. Many predators feed on spiny lobster, including groupers, snappers, sharks, skates, turtles, and octopuses.
Caribbean spiny lobsters are found along the continental shelf of the southeastern United States from North Carolina to Florida as well as the Gulf of Mexico. They can also be found throughout the Caribbean Sea and along the coast of South America to Brazil. They inhabit depths ranging from just below the water surface to 1,650 feet (489 meters), though they are typically found at depths from 0 to 295 feet (90 meters). Larval spiny lobsters float in the water column and as they grow, will eventually swim to and settle in nearshore habitats. Juveniles will live in areas with dense vegetation such as surf grass and macroalgae until they reach about 0.6 to 0.8 inches, after which they move to and find shelter in crevices provided by sponges, soft coral, and other bottom substrates. After reaching 2 to 3.15 inches, spiny lobsters will leave their nearshore nursery grounds and will move offshore – settling in areas with rocky substrates and coral reefs where they can find adequate protection and shelter. Adults conduct seasonal nearshore and offshore migrations, moving offshore and into deeper waters during the winter.
Science & Management
The Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary launched a long-term monitoring program with scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to track spiny lobster populations within and outside three highly protected zones. From 1997 to 2006, size, sex, molt stage, reproductive state of females, den number, and depth were recorded for each lobster encountered. This data provided information on lobster size, abundance, and population structure within the three areas. More research is needed on growth and longevity of the Caribbean spiny lobster.
Studies in 2007 and 2013 have indicated that Caribbean spiny lobsters have the most potential for growth in aquaculture operations when compared to other lobster species. Their rapid growth rate, high demand, and ability to grow in a variety of culture systems make the tropical lobster an ideal candidate. More research is needed to develop economically viable, land-based and open ocean cage systems. Research in improving technology for capture of wild larvae, design and testing of various culture systems, determinations of optimal management practices, and development of acceptable formulated feeds is also needed. Small scale testing is necessary before Caribbean spiny lobster aquaculture can be verified commercially.
Because lobsters spend a majority of their larval stage floating with the currents, scientists believe that young lobsters that survive to adulthood in the United States come from other areas, namely the Caribbean. Recent genetic studies have shown that almost all the developed lobster in US waters come from the Caribbean, meaning the spawning biomass there is more relevant to population status than the spawning biomass in Florida.
NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC), the governments of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Fishery Management Councils manage the US Caribbean spiny lobster fishery. Caribbean spiny lobsters are managed in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico federal exclusive economic zones (EEZ) under the Spiny Lobster in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Plan (FMP) and are managed in Florida state waters under the FFWCC Commercial Regulations for Spiny Lobsters. Although the jurisdiction of the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council encompasses the EEZs along states throughout the southeastern US, the only direct commercial fishery for Caribbean spiny lobster in the continental US is in Florida. As such, management measures between the FFWCC and the federal management councils are often streamlined – with regulations in Florida state waters extending into federal waters. Among management measures in place are:
Annual catch limits as well as bag limits for both commercial and recreational fishers
Seasonal closures (from April 1 through August 5) to protect spawning lobsters
Prohibiting the harvest and imports of egg-bearing females or females that have been stripped of eggs
Minimum size limits (3" carapace length)
Gear restrictions prohibiting the use of spears, hooks, piercing devices, explosives, or poison
Gear modifications (all non-wooden traps must have biodegradable escape panels) to prevent ghost fishing
Permanent closed areas off-limits to fishing
A permit system to participate in the fishery and a Lobster Trap Certificate Program to reduce the number of traps in the fishery
Prohibiting the import of spiny lobster tail meat that is not in whole-tail form with the exoskeleton still attached
Regulations for the use of undersized lobsters as trap attractants
There is one Caribbean spiny lobster stock in the South Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2010 stock assessment, the population status of the South Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico stock is unknown. Based on 2013 catch data, the South Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico stock is not subject to overfishing.
In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caribbean spiny lobsters are managed under the Spiny Lobster Fishery of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Under the FMP, an annual catch limit is allocated amongst the three different stocks in the region – Puerto Rico, St. John/St. Thomas, and St. Croix. The FMP shares many similarities with management measures outlined in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico FMP such as: minimum size limits, gear restrictions prohibiting the use of spears, hooks, piercing devices, explosives, and poisons, and gear modifications to prevent ghost fishing. Among other measures the FMP includes are:
Prohibiting fishers from bringing egg-bearing females aboard a vessel (they can be kept in traps/pots until the eggs are shed)
Requirements that lobsters be whole when brought to port
The population status of the Puerto Rico, St. John/St. Thomas, and St. Croix stocks is unknown because these three stocks have not been formally assessed. Based on 2013 catch data the three stocks are not subject to overfishing.
In Mexico, the primary agency in charge of fisheries regulation is the Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentación (SAGARPA). There are two agencies under SAGARPA:
The National Fisheries Commission (CONAPESCA) – which is in charge of fisheries regulation and enforcement
The National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) – which provides the science necessary for management recommendations
CONAPESCA, as well as local fishery cooperatives, regulate the spiny lobster fishery in the Mexican Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Baja California through a decree in the Mexican Official Norm. Among regulations covered in the law are: minimum size limits, a regulated fishing season, gear restrictions, restrictions on landing egg-bearing females, and a permit entry system – limiting the number of boats, traps, and areas where spiny lobster fishing is allowed. Management and enforcement measures in Mexico have been considered effective at maintaining a stable spiny lobster fishery in the region.
In the Bahamas, fisheries are regulated through the Department of Marine Resources. The Department of Marine Resources establishes management measures such as minimum size requirements, closed seasons, and gear restrictions. While the spiny lobster population is considered stable in the Bahamas and commercial fishing is limited to nationals, the Department of Marine Resources needs to improve regulation enforcement and catch monitoring.
Management of spiny lobsters in Belize, Brazil, Honduras, Nicaragua has not been considered effective and there is a lack of current stock and fishing mortality assessments in those regions. These countries also have difficulty enforcing fishing regulations and there is a high incident of illegal, unregulated, unreported (IUU) fishing.
Caribbean spiny lobsters, sometimes called Florida lobster or rock lobster, is a highly fecund species that can be long-lived, depending on the level of fishing pressure. Migration routes do make them easy to capture in large numbers. Caribbean spiny lobsters are found in the warm waters off the southeastern United States, in the Gulf of Mexico, and throughout the Caribbean to Brazil. Overall data about the species’ abundance remains uncertain although scientific stock assessments have been done in Florida, where the lobsters are not considered overfished. However, most Caribbean spiny lobster is imported from Latin America, where they are overfished.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
These spiny lobsters are commonly caught using pots and traps made from wood, plastic or metal that are weighted to the seafloor. Lobster traps may have a moderate to severe effect on the ocean habitats such as rocky reefs and coral as well as sandier areas, according to a 2013 Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch report. Some spiny lobsters are also caught by divers. In Florida, ecological reserves have been created where lobster fishing is prohibited.
Bycatch in the U.S. fishery is limited but can include undersized lobster as well as finfish such as groupers, snappers, grunts and ornamental fish. Fishermen with certain permits are allowed to keep and sell incidental grouper and snapper catch, however. Lobster traps in the U.S. must have biodegradable escape panels to prevent ghost fishing. While sea turtles have had some interactions with spiny lobster traps in the Florida fishery, the number of entanglements is low. Regulations are not enforced in Nicaragua, Honduras, Brazil, and the Bahamas so bycatch there often includes undersized lobsters. In addition, finfish and crab are the most common non-targeted species caught in those regions but exact data is unknown.
The management of Caribbean spiny lobsters differs dramatically depending on the region. Measures in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico include minimum size limits, seasonal restrictions, gear restrictions and annual catch limits. Management is considered effective in Mexico, where area restrictions, gear limits and scientific monitoring are in place. In Florida, population assessments have been expanded in recent years to include scientific research and observer data, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Regulations in the Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua are not commonly enforced, resulting in widespread illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. In addition, scientific data is extremely limited. A Monterey Bay Aquarium report from 2013 called management effectiveness a high concern in Belize and the Bahamas and a critical concern in Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua.