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Lobster, Spiny (Panulirus argus)
Also known as: Bug, Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Crawfish, Florida Lobster, Langosta Espinosa, Rock Lobster
Source: Wild-caught in Gulf state waters mostly from West Florida

Caribbean spiny lobster are found in the western north Atlantic from North Carolina to Texas, throughout the Caribbean, and south to Brazil. Larval spiny lobster swim to nearshore habitats and settle in dense vegetation and later crevices as they grow larger. When they reach two to three inches, they begin to travel from nursery habitat to coral reefs and other offshore habitats. Adult spiny lobster move along shore and offshore seasonally, migrating in single-file lines to deeper water to escape cold and murky waters.

Spiny lobster grow by molting—their hard shell restricts growth so they must shed it to increase in size. They can grow up to three feet in length and 15 pounds in weight. In the southeastern United States, females are able to reproduce when they’re 2.75 to three inches carapace (shell) length, at about three to four years old. In the Florida Keys, spiny lobster spawn from April through September on offshore reefs. Males attach a sperm packet to the underside of the female’s abdomen. The female uses one of her legs to rupture the packet; she releases her eggs and they’re fertilized as they pass over the sperm. Females release between 500,000 to 1.7 million eggs each time they spawn. They carry the fertilized eggs beneath their tail until the eggs hatch. Spiny lobster can live to 15 years or more.

Spiny lobster larvae feed on plankton while juveniles and adults feed on snails, clams, and crabs. They are nocturnal, foraging for food at night. Fish, sea turtles, and octopi feed on spiny lobster.

Spiny lobsters get their name from the forward-pointing spines covering bodies to help protect them from predators. Caribbean spiny lobsters vary in color from light grey or tan to dark red-orange with occasional dark spots. They have two large, cream-colored spots on the top of the second segment of the tail. They have long, horn-like antennae over their eyes that they wave to scare off predators, and smaller antennae-like “antennules” that sense movement and detect chemicals in the water. Spiny lobsters lack the large front claws of the familiar American lobster.

Harvested for their tail meat, spiny lobster support important fisheries throughout most of their range, from Bermuda to Brazil. In the United States, fishermen primarily harvest spiny lobster off South Florida.

A longtime favorite seafood of Floridians, spiny lobster has been harvested commercially since the early 1800s. The commercial fishery expanded from the 1940s through the 1970s, and commercial harvests on Florida’s Gulf coast have averaged more than 4.2 million pounds and nearly $25.3 million in the past decade. Florida provides nearly 100% of the Caribbean spiny lobster harvested in the United States. Most harvests come from the southeastern Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Keys.

The recreational fishery for spiny lobsters grew with the growing popularity of skin and scuba diving in the 1950s. Today, it is one of Florida’s most intensive recreational fisheries and contributes millions of dollars annually to coastal communities and economies in south Florida and the Florida Keys.

Due to the popularity of and great demand for spiny lobster, managers have implemented a number of measures to protect this important resource from being overharvested. They continue to evaluate the fishery to ensure it’s operating sustainably and conduct research to inform future management. For example, managers know that hurricanes pose a major risk to the spiny lobster fishery—they regularly pass during the peak of the fishing season and destroy lobster traps. In addition, the lobster fishery is currently overcapitalized—there are more traps active in the fishery than needed to maintain current catch levels. A primary goal of spiny lobster management is to reduce the number of traps in the fishery, which would reduce the cost to fishermen of losing traps during hurricanes (reducing the damage to corals caused when traps move during storms) and potentially improve harvest.

Methods Seasons Landings
Commercial Recreational

Florida accounts for all Gulf and nearly all U.S. harvests of spiny lobster. Most of Florida’s spiny lobster harvests come from the Gulf Coast, especially the Florida Keys. From 1976 to 2000, Gulf Coast commercial fishermen landed an average of 5 million pounds annually (of Florida’s total annual average of 5.65 million pounds). Gulf landings dropped to an average of about 4.2 million pounds from 2000 to 2013. In 2013, Gulf fishermen harvested more than 5.6 million pounds with dockside revenue of more than $46.7 million.

Source: NOAA Fisheries Annual Commercial Landings Statistics

Landings Summary Data :  

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Overview Current Abundance Additional Reasearch

Scientists from state and federal agencies and research institutions conduct various studies to monitor the spiny lobster population in the southeastern United States. They sample the population with traps and through dives and study the different life stages of lobsters, including larval lobster settlement, lobster growth, and survival of young lobsters.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) monitors Florida’s commercial fishery through its Marine Fisheries Trip Ticket Program, which requires all sales of seafood products from the waters of Florida to be reported on a trip ticket at the time of sale. Trip tickets include information about the harvester, the dealer purchasing the product, the date of the transaction, the county in which the species was landed, time fished, and pounds of each species landed for each trip. They monitor the recreational fishery through landings reports and a mail survey that targets lobster license holders. They find out where they fished, how much they harvested, general impressions of the season, etc. Observers also interview commercial and recreational fishermen to find out more about catch rates and the sizes of fishermen’s lobster catch.

Working with managers and stakeholders, scientists use this information to assess the status of the spiny lobster stock in the southeastern United States through the Southeast Data and Review (SEDAR) process.

Current Abundance

The latest SEDAR assessment (2005) and update (2010) indicated that spiny lobsters are abundant in the southeastern United States. However, scientists cannot accurately assess the health of the broader population without more information about the population in the Caribbean. They’ve found that lobsters spend a long time as larvae traveling with the currents, which distribute them far from their parent stock, so most young lobsters in the southeastern United States were born in other waters further to the south. In fact, recent genetic studies have shown almost all young lobsters in U.S. waters are from the Caribbean. As a result, the status of the U.S. stock depends more on the abundance of mature spiny lobsters in the Caribbean and the growth and survival of larvae from Caribbean lobster stocks than those in Florida. 

Fishing rates are at appropriate levels. However, the lobster fishery is currently overcapitalized, meaning there are more traps active in the fishery than needed to maintain current harvest levels. Harvest levels remain stable largely because of the recruitment of larvae from the rest of the Caribbean population. The primary goal of spiny lobster management is to reduce the number of traps in the fishery, which would reduce the cost to fishermen of losing traps during hurricanes (also reducing the damage to corals caused when traps move during storms) and potentially improve harvest.

Additional Research

Who's Responsible Management Program
Who's Responsible

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is responsible for managing the spiny lobster fishery in Florida state waters. NOAA Fisheries and the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Fishery Management Councils are in charge of managing the spiny lobster fishery in federal Gulf waters.

FWC, NOAA Fisheries, and U.S. Coast Guard enforcement agents and officers work together to ensure fishermen comply with state and federal rules and regulations.

Management Program

To streamline management between state and federal waters, the Councils’ joint Fishery Management Plan for Spiny Lobster in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic essentially extends the FWC’s regulations for the state fishery to federal waters off Florida. Specific management measures include harvest and size limits, seasonal and area closures, gear restrictions, and licensing and permitting requirements. For more on state management, see below; for more on federal management, see FishWatch.gov.


  • Fishermen must have the appropriate licenses and permits to harvest and sell spiny lobster.
  • If using traps, they must have trap certificates. Through their trap reduction program, FWC periodically reduces the amount of available certificates to control the amount of active traps in the state’s lobster fishery and reduce excess fishing effort.
  • Traps must meet certain specifications for construction, including materials, size, and degradable escape panels (on plastic traps), and must be tagged. Fishermen must also properly mark traps, buoys, and vessels with their permit numbers to assist with enforcement.
  • Fishermen may only harvest lobsters during the open season; the season is closed from April 1st through August 5th to protect spiny lobsters during the peak of their spawning season.
  • Fishermen may only harvest spiny lobsters with a three inch carapace (shell) length or longer and with tails 5.5 inches in length or longer. They also may not harvest egg-bearing lobsters. They must return egg-bearing and undersized lobsters back to the water and follow various measures to prevent mortality of these lobsters. This helps protect the next generation of spiny lobsters.
  • Fishermen may only harvest 250 lobsters per day when diving or using nets; there is no daily possession or bag limit when using traps. However, there is an overall annual catch limit of 7.32 million pounds that applies to both commercial and recreational fisheries in both state and federal waters of the Gulf and South Atlantic. If annual harvests approach this limit, managers will determine if management needs to change to prevent overharvest.
  • Fishermen may not use spears, hooks, piercing devices, explosives, or poisons to harvest spiny lobster.


  • Recreational fishermen must have a saltwater fishing license and lobster permit to harvest spiny lobster.
  • Off Florida, there is a special recreational two-day season during the last week of July before the regular commercial and recreational season starts. The goal of this special season is to compensate recreational fishermen for the concession that allows commercial fishermen to place their traps in the water prior to the start of the official season and to reduce user conflicts on the opening day of the regular lobster season.
  • Regulations limit the amount of spiny lobster recreational fishermen can harvest per trip; these vary by season and area. They must harvest lobsters whole.
  • Like commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen may only harvest spiny lobsters with a carapace larger than three inches. They also may not harvest egg-bearing lobsters. They must immediately release egg-bearing and undersized lobsters unharmed, without removing them from the water.
  • Recreational fishermen may not use traps or any device that could puncture, penetrate, or crush the lobster to harvest lobsters.

Commercial and recreational harvest of spiny lobsters is prohibited in several federal and Florida marine protected areas, particularly in areas with sensitive coral reefs off the Florida Keys to prevent damage from fishing gear.