Love lobster? Spiny lobster season is here

Free diver Brad Thompson knows the first few weeks of lobster season are the best times to nab the tasty crustaceans – before they catch on.

“The lobster get wise, start hiding deeper and not going out as much,” said Thompson, director of OC Spearos, Orange County’s largest spearfishing and freediving club.

The spiny lobster season officially kicks off at 6 a.m. on Oct. 2, with divers – as well as their friends and family who stay on dry land and get to benefit from the catch – excited about bringing home dinner straight from the sea.

“It’s going to be an absolute zoo at all the beaches. The sport just keeps growing and growing,” Thompson said. “Every year, it’s more and more people in the water.

“I suppose it’s good and bad. I’m glad because people are getting into the sport  and bad because they are taking my lobster,” he said with a chuckle.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, last year’s season was “particularly active,” likely due to people wanting to get outdoors during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“We saw a record number of lobster report card sales during the 2020-21 lobster season,” CDFW marine environmental scientist Jenny Hofmeister said in an announcement.

Typically about 33,000 report cards – required to document a catch – are purchased each season. Last year, that number surged to 46,000, with more than half of those new lobster hunters.

“The season-opening weekend is one of the busiest times on the water, with thousands of lobster divers and hoop netters flocking to their favorite lobstering spot,” CDFW officials said. “Before heading out to the water, be sure you know all the current regulations.”

A lobster report card is required for all persons under 16 fishing for lobster and they must have a sport fishing license and ocean enhancement stamp. The cards, which have to be turned in at the end of the season, have to note how they were caught, when, where and how many.

Last season, more than 54,000 lobster trips were reported with nearly half happening in the first month of the season opener. The average take was about two lobsters kept per trip, officials said.

Of all reported trips, 8% occurred on opening day with divers and hoop netters taking home almost 11,000 lobsters.

With the sun rising at 6:45 a.m., opening morning will have just a short window of opportunity to catch the crustaceans.

“You can do it during the day, but it’s more difficult,” Thompson said.

Night diving can come with its own complications and safety concerns. There’s been several tragedies in recent years during lobster dives.

“The lobsters are there, but the first thing to think about is safety,” Thompson said. “Don’t push anything, don’t go crazy.”

Always go with a partner or join a group of friends.

“Don’t go alone and always go with a partner and make sure you are always in sight of each other,” Thompson said.

Communities such as OC Spearos can help answer questions and if you don’t have friends who dive, you can find new ones to join on outings, he said.

“We’re here, we know you’re going to do it, we may as well help you to be safe,” he said, noting that many times people will reach out on Facebook looking for others to join. “Almost inevitably,  someone will say yes, so you’ll make a new friend or two.”

OC Spearos director Eric Jensen, center, holds a 12.7lb lobster he caught while director Brad Thompson, left and founder Fernando Gutierrez hold their lobster catch in 2019. (Photo by Michael Fernandez, Contributing Photographer)

Getting certified to free dive or scuba dive is also important, Thompson said.

Also, people should be up-to-date on Marine Protected Areas where you can’t catch animals – areas off limits such as Laguna Beach and Palos Verdes.

“It is extremely important that fishermen know the location and regulations for each Marine Protected Area near where they will be fishing,” CDFW Capt. Eric Kord said. “Unfortunately, every year numerous citations are issued to lobster fishermen, both divers and hoop netters alike, for unlawful take in (a protected area).”

Lobster can only be taken with hoop nets, no more than five, or by hand. No other device, such as spears or poles, may be used. When on a boat, only 10 hoop nets may be used aboard a vessel, regardless of how many people are onboard, according to CDFW. When using hoop nets on piers, jetties or other shore-based structures, only two hoop nets may be used.

The daily limit for lobster taken home is seven and they have to be at least 3-and-a-quarter inches long.

Once all the requirements are met, it’s all about the hunt.

“I come from a family of hunters and fishermen, that is one aspect of it. I really like the satisfaction of getting the food I’m going to feed my family with, using my hands,” Thompson said.

Plus, there’s a quietness in the dark, underwater, with only one thing on the mind.

“At all times of the day, someone needs me for something. Free diving is a place where I can go in silence and just be with myself and my dive partner. You get in this meditative state, where you can sort of decompress and focus on one singular task at hand,” he said.

And the reward is a mouth-watering treat.

“It’s super tasty,” he said.

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