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Lobster mini-season reels in hunters despite dangers
by Staff Writers
Miami (AFP) Aug 1, 2011

With their mouths watering, thousands of divers took to Florida's waters for the southern US state's annual 48-hour mini-season when lobster lovers can hunt for gourmet gold.

The two-day window allows fishermen to legally catch up to 12 lobsters per person per day, before commercial fishermen start their season on August 6.

State fishery managers estimate that on average more than half of the 50,000 divers who chase lobster during the mini-season head for the Florida Keys in south Florida.

With their license to fish and hunt in their boats, entire families take to the sea with special lamps and banners to hunt for the lobsters.

"I came up on one hole and they were all sitting right there," said Christine Mathew, who caught five lobsters at Biscayne Bay. "The best part for me is to cook and enjoy it with family."

Like Mathew, most hunters during the mini-season plan to eat their catch said George Pino, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

He added that divers should be aware of the risks they face.

"In years past, divers participating in the sport season have died, because of accidents in the ocean, heart attacks and other medical problems," said Pino.

"Some of them have been hit by boats and have drifted away in the current, triggering ocean searches by the Coast Guard. Our main focus is to urge people to dive safely, boat safely and know the rules so they can stay out of trouble."

-- 'It could have eaten us' --

A few hours after the season began at midnight on Wednesday, a 54-year-old man was killed while diving in the Upper Keys area. He had been diving with his son, according to Monroe County police.

"I'm worried this year, because the weather is not the best right now, there are a lot of winds, and that could change the current and is risky for divers... There is a high risk of rip currents," Pino said.

The weather did not stop Thomas Edwards from venturing to Crandon Park in Key Biscayne to join in the hunt for lobsters.

Edwards, who took home six lobsters, said he had a different type of scare. "I saw a shark very close. I broke off the antenna of one (lobster) and I tried to stab it, the shark, you know, to get it away from us. It was big, it could have eaten us, all," he said.

Precautions were taken to warn other boaters to steer clear of areas where lobster divers were preying on their game.

"As every year, the FWC is asking boaters to be keenly aware of red and white diver-down flags during the lobster mini-season," said Pino.

"Florida law requires boaters to make every attempt to stay 300 feet (91 meters) away from dive flags in open water and 100 feet (30 meters) away in rivers, inlets and navigation channels."

The mini-season was first launched in 1987 to help minimize clashes between commercial trap fishermen and recreational divers.

Alex Matos, a Cuban fisherman, said the fishing was fun and the lobsters were plentiful, though he did acknowledge rough seas. "We'll go out again tomorrow," he said Wednesday after catching eight lobsters. "We want to catch more and make a good lobster enchilada."

Carlos Aspuro arrived at Biscayne Bay with his uncle late Tuesday night to be two of the first to begin hunting. He brought with him a flashlight, a flag to mark his space and a ruler to measure the catch.

State law forbids keeping any lobsters smaller than three inches (7.6 centimeters), and Aspuro said he planned to adhere to the rules.

"If you break the law and catch more than the amount allowed or lobsters that are smaller than allowed, you can pay heavy fines," he said.

According to the FWC, fines begin at $500 depending on the crime, and could lead to as much as six months in jail, as well as losing a fishing license.

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