KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) - Florida's two-day spiny lobster season is one of the state's most popular recreational events each year - and one of its most dangerous.
Thousands of snorkelers and divers are taking to the waters off South Florida Wednesday and Thursday in hopes of catching the tasty crustaceans, but if past years are any indication, some people will be seriously hurt and possibly die in the effort. One person has died in each of the last two years.
A combination of inadequate diving equipment and divers overexerting themselves as they chase after lobsters can create a problem underwater, said Jorge Pino, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokesman and officer.
"Once that happens, they panic and it's all over. And by the time somebody can get to them it's just too late," he said.
To prevent casualties, dozens of law enforcement officials were on hand Wednesday to caution divers about boater safety and to ensure they followed the rules set by the FWC.
Steve Fenby said he almost ran over a diver while driving slowly under a bridge because the diver's boat did not have a divers-down flag - a red flag with a diagonal stripe- to warn him of the swimmers nearby.
"That's a big problem out here," he said. "That's the reason why most people get run over and killed down here because they're ignorant."
At least a dozen boaters had been stopped less than 10 hours after the season officially opened on midnight Wednesday. Pino let two boaters off the hook with a verbal warning. One boater was speeding in a manatee zone and another was operating his vessel with a divers-down flag up, a $90 violation.
The divers-down flag is just one of nearly a dozen requirements that lobster divers must follow. The others include: Boaters must have a measuring device onboard and lobsters must be in the water when they are measured - the shell part of the lobster must be at least three inches; divers can't take egg-bearing females - turn over the lobster to see the bright orange eggs - and lobsters must be in their entire condition before being taken to shore.
Those looking to catch dinner must also have a recreational saltwater fishing license and a spiny lobster permit. Both can be purchased online. And recreational divers can take up to six lobsters per person per day in Monroe County in the Florida Keys and a dozen in most other parts of Florida.
Violators can be cited or even arrested. In June, two men accused of poaching almost 500 spiny lobsters out of season were arrested and charged in Miami-Dade County with multiple misdemeanor charges. The limits are set to ensure that the spiny lobster's population doesn't shrink and FWC are strict about enforcement.
"They're everywhere. Don't even think about cheating," said David Mata of Hollywood, who has been stopped by authorities every year over the last decade to make sure he did not go over the bag limit. Mata hoped to catch the maximum amount of lobsters, but the season appeared to start off slow for other lobster divers.
"I think it's because of all the rain," said Mike Dasher, who had only caught a handful of lobsters. "We've had it happened before, when it rained, rained, rained...it's like the solidity in the water and they go deep."
Divers were also encouraged to capture and eat any lionfish they may encounter while diving for lobsters. There is no bag limit for the invasive fish that can be just as tasty as lobsters.
The regular commercial and recreational lobster season runs Aug. 6 through March 31.
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