Tens of thousands of people expected for lobster season

Although the July 4 holiday week was a busy time, the two-week countdown has started toward the real July season for the Keys tourism industry: The lobster sport-diving days, better known as mini-season, arrive anew July 25 and 26.

A typical year draws about 30,000 lobster divers to the Florida Keys during those two days, according to calculations by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The mini-season gives recreational divers a chance to get a jump on the Aug. 6 start of the regular eight-month lobster season.

“It looks great for mini-season,” said Brenda Gladwell from the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge. “It’s like a big family reunion here every year. It’s a lot of fun to see everybody.”

The Lower Keys waterfront business — with more than 170 campsites and 16 rooms — is not completely booked but soon will be, Gladwell said.

“It has been a busy summer and lobster mini-season is looking good,” said Deb Gillis, who manages 54 rooms at her Islamorada motels, including the Sunset Inn and Keys Lantern.

Gillis noted that some regular mini-season visitors have changed their lobster diving trip to the opening of regular season, when fewer regulations are in place.

In addition to a ban on night diving in the Keys during the two days, unincorporated Monroe County and several municipalities have declared a dive ban within 300 feet of shore during mini-season.

While some divers complain about the lack of shore diving, the nearshore ban seems to have resolved many conflicts between waterfront property owners and ardent divers who poke around beneath private docks.

FWC Officer Bobby Dube said the most notable change in Keys lobster-diving rules for the 2012 mini-season is that Layton on Long Key has joined the nearshore dive ban. Only Key West has no such ban.

Monroe County’s ordinance for the unincorporated areas was changed in 2011 to ban nearshore diving three days ahead of mini-season, which means the county ban starts July 22 this year.

Others areas closed to lobster harvesting during mini-season include Biscayne Bay and Card Sound, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and Florida Bay waters of Everglades National Park and the Dry Tortugas.

The Lobster Information Booth will open in Key Largo at mile marker 106 bayside on July 21 to brief divers on rules, closed areas and proper harvesting techniques.

Last year, one person, a 54-year-old Massachusetts man, died while diving for lobster at the Upper Keys reef. No one died in the 2010 season when the threat of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill seemed to depress diving activity.

But in the four sport-diving seasons from 2005-2009, a total of 12 divers died in Florida Keys waters.

Dive-medical experts with the Divers Alert Network caution divers — particularly those over age 50 — to stay in shape before mini-season and take care not to exert themselves in the fevered pursuit of spiny lobster.

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