By Sandy Mazza, Daily Breeze
Bucking its tail and shaking its antennae with menacing clicks, a foot-long male California spiny lobster tried to free itself from Paul Romanowski’s tight grip.
The nocturnal animal wanted to be returned to the black nighttime ocean, where it had ventured out of a cave perhaps in search of sea urchins or mussels to eat along the giant, sloping rocks that form the Los Angeles Harbor breakwall. But Romanowski tossed it into the bait-tank of his sportfishing boat with six others that he and a friend hunted Saturday night in unseasonably warm waters in view of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“They only have like two brain cells,” Romanowski said. “He was kicking my ass. He just stabbed me right through the nipple.”
Unlike its clawed Maine relatives, 10-legged spiny lobsters don’t have pincers and are more like spiders than crawfish. Still, “everything eats them,” Romanowski said. So the few lobsters that grow to be adults hide in rocky caves during the day and carefully hunt at night. Egg-bearing female lobsters release hundreds of thousands of plankton “babies” each time they reproduce, but only a couple of those survive to adulthood. Those that grow to be adults are hunted by humans, fish, birds, marine mammals, sharks, eels, octopuses and even larger lobsters.
Increasing fishing pressure due to their high-dollar value has worried environmentalists and ecologically minded fishers. The Chinese market, which prefers the more meaty spiny lobster to Maine lobster, has driven up the animal’s value since 2010 as demand from the country soared because the live crustaceans are such a delicacy. Since they can be sold for about $25 per pound right off the boat, poachers are rampant.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the process of developing its first Fishery Management Plan for the species to address the increasing popularity of lobster hunting by adding protections for the animals. State regulators have worked with fishers and environmentalists for more than a year to develop a plan that will please those who want to sustain the ecosystem with less fishing, and those who want to hunt. A rough draft of the fishery plan is expected by next month, and the final plan should be finished next year.
“The Lobster Fishery Management Plan will maintain certain lobster fishing regulations that have been in place for decades in SoCal and serve to refine others,” said Travis Buck, a Fish and Wildlife marine biologist working on the plan. “The FMP will also review fishery management methods used in lobster fisheries in other parts of the world and examine any other conservation and management measures that should be considered.”
The California lobster fishery stretches only from Monterey Bay to Mexico, but it is one of the state’s most lucrative fisheries because they can be sold for such high prices. In 2013, the commercial fishery landed 772,305 pounds of spiny lobster, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Estimates for the recreational lobster take are more murky, since those fishers only report their kill on state-mandated “lobster cards” that they are supposed to return to fishery managers each year but rarely do.
“Fishers have seen more take from their lobster fisheries, and they’re worried what will happen if the commercial sector continues to grow,” said Sarah Sikitch, Heal the Bay’s science and policy director.
“In this highly populated, very urban population, we’ve got recreational divers that make up 30 to 50 percent of the lobster fishery. That’s really unique to California because other places that have spiny lobster fisheries — South Africa, the Caribbean, New Zealand and Australia — don’t have that recreational pressure.”
Commercial fishers get lobsters using baited metal traps on the ocean floor with a long line attached to a buoy. Free divers like Romanowski search for them in relatively shallow waters from 10 to 40 feet deep using their hands. Scuba divers similarly fish lobsters one at a time, by hand. But, since 2007, most recreational fishing has been done using hoop nets — a newer technology that allows people to leave baited nets in the water to grab lobsters so they don’t have to actually swim for them.
“Hoop nets are a very effective form of getting lobster, it’s almost too effective,” said Michael Gould, a longtime free diver who is representing California divers in this statewide fishery planning process. “The Ventura breakwall is a place that’s near and dear to my heart because I’ve dove it since I was a child, and it’s always full of lobster. Now, because of the hoop netters, you might find only two or three (on a dive).”
Recreational lobster hunting has a long history in Southern California. In the 1800s, lobsters were so abundant off the coast that “a single person could catch 500 pounds in just two hours,” according to a Department of Fish and Wildlife assessment. When the season opens each year, divers line up all along the coast to fill their nets.
But there are costs associated with the risky hobby. Seven divers reportedly have died already this season from underwater heart attacks or diving accidents since the season opened on Sept. 28. It closes March 20.
The fishery management plan may change the season’s start time from midnight on a Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday to make it less dangerous since so many people get in the water on the first day, Gould said.
The plan likely will also address hoop-net fishing by limiting the number of nets allowed on a single boat. Romanowski suggested requiring the nets to be marked with the fisher’s identification to prevent illegal poaching, and banning conical hoop nets because they are too much like commercial traps and kill too many animals. Recreational fishers are only allowed to take seven lobsters total per trip but poachers have found ways around the limit, said Romanowski, who recommends that the state limit recreational take to 70 lobsters per season. Limits on the number of commercial traps allowed are also under consideration.
“We need to keep the fishery viable and productive and exciting for everybody,” Romanowski said. “Right now, it’s 1 percent of fishermen taking 90 percent of the fish. These guys know what they’re doing and that’s what makes it so dangerous.”
Lobsters are also important to the ecosystem, which has drawn demands for protections from environmental groups. Lobsters eat sea urchin, which have proliferated so much that they now dominate the Santa Monica Bay’s coastal sea bed. Environmentalists and fishers are working to clear the urchins so kelp forests will grow back and the ecosystem will be rebuilt.
“In order to have a healthy lobster population in the long run, both recreational and commercial sectors need to be addressed,” Sikitch said. “We have a huge opportunity in that the lobster populations are doing OK right now but, if we wait much longer, they may start to degrade.”
On Romanowski’s most recent lobster diving trip Saturday, he and fellow diver Austin Derry snagged seven lobsters in less than an hour in crevices along the Los Angeles Harbor breakwall. Both men are longtime divers and members of the Los Angeles Fathomiers, a Torrance-based dive club.
Romanowski has been lobster diving and spear-fishing locally for 20 years, and averages dives of 80 to 100 seconds — a feat since he’s holding his breath in dark, often cold water while his body is being compressed by a wet suit. His longest recorded dive is more than four minutes, and one of his biggest catches — a 12-pound male — is mounted on his wall.
On Saturday, he followed the giant rocks of the breakwall, pushing tall kelp vines aside and shining a flashlight to reveal cracks in the rocks where the lobsters (which he calls “bugs”) congregated. Then he grabbed them firmly by the carapace and put them into a net he carried until he was ready to swim back to the boat.
Back on the boat, he and Derry measured their catch to make sure they were large enough to take legally, and loaded them into the boat’s bait tank. Romanowski took them home and put them in the freezer until Tuesday, when he pulled them out, soaked them in butter and grilled them for fellow dive club members.
The hourlong dive yielded seven “bugs” weighing about 12 pounds altogether. They could have made about $300 from the take if they sold them, but Romanowski prefers sharing his kill with friends and family. Derry said he doesn’t even eat lobster, though he hunts them most seasons.
“I like hunting them more than eating them,” Derry said. “It’s seasonal, and right now lobster is really the only thing to dive for.”