CARIBBEAN LOBSTER PRIMER Part Deux
This should be titled barely legal. However, I am going to cover the ins and outs of lobsters in Virgin Islands waters. We will talk about the Virgin Islands lobster laws. I will also include a little about what is desirable and what isn’t. For more information on identification, anatomy, and behavior please refer to my last blog, Caribbean Lobster Primer. So here it is the Virgin Islands Lobster Hunting Practices.
There are no licensing requirements to take lobsters in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We do have regulations. Most of them pertain to the Caribbean Spiny Lobster. This is the one most of us prefer to catch and eat. The pregnancy laws do apply to all lobsters.
Lobsters in the USVI have no season. A diver or snorkeler may catch them year round providing they have a 3.5” carapace. This means the main shell from the notch between the horns to the end of the shell where the tail starts must be 3.5”. Only 2 lobsters may be taken by a diver in any one day.
All lobsters must be landed whole. This way a carapace could be measured by an officer if needed. “Wringing” a lobster (the practice of twisting the tail off and discarding the head before reaching shore) is a USVI no-no. If a leg or antennae breaks off you are required to bring that back with you as well. You may only take lobsters by trapping them snaring them or grabbing them by hand. SPEARING LOBSTERS IS ILLEGAL. If you remember what I said last week about lobster blood then you know that the chemical receptors on the smaller forked antennae sense the blood and won’t return to that hole knowing another lobster was injured there. By the way, just like squid lobsters have hemocyanic or copper based blood that is therefore blue in color.
Finally, it is illegal to take a pregnant female of any specie of lobster. This includes females who currently possess sperm caps and not just displaying eggs under the tail. Sperm caps are the two dark grey or black looking smears found on the abdomen of the female just in front of the tail. Sometimes they merge and appear as one.
Finally, be aware of you are hunting “bugs”. Much of the south east end of St. Thomas surrounding the mangroves and the waters extending to St. John are protected against fishing or hunting of any kind. The waters included in the St. John National Park can be hunted with the same restrictions. If you are hunting around one of the islands Like the Capella Islands (Capella and Buck Island), The Flat Cays, and Saba you need to be careful as well because they are wildlife sanctuaries and these privileges do extend off shore.
The ideal lobster to catch and eat is a male roughly 1.5 lbs. (just barely legal). Our first instinct is to take the biggest lobster we can find. The problem with this is cooking them. When the tail gets too large. Big tails don’t taste as sweet and often become too gummy or chewy because they have to be over cooked. Almost all females that reach this size are perpetually pregnant and are therefore, off limits. If you do decide to catch a lobster over this size use the whole thing. Really large lobsters have tasty legs that can be eaten like crab legs. The meat inside the carapace makes a delicious bisque. The muscle inside the first knuckle of the antennae is very tasty and sweet just like the claws of Maine or American lobster.
We find lobsters hidden in holes, overhangs, and crevices. Do you know why? Females prefer these places to protect them elves while they tend their eggs during pregnancy. The other reason lobsters search out these spots is to protect themselves during molting. Yes, lobsters shed their shells just like snakes shed their skin. This leads me to another undesirable catch. A molting lobster is not worth catching. When the new shell is not fully developed you cannot successfully separate the meat from the new shell making it difficult to eat.
Caribbean spiny lobster tastes pest when served fresh. Don’t plan on poaching more than 2 freezing them doesn’t provide the best results anyway. If you focus on the tale, start by either twisting off of the main body or inserting your knife between the tale on an angle towards the head and under the carapace. Then make a a 300 degree conical cut removing as much meat as you can. Remove a section of the antennae about 2” longer that the tale. Insert the wide end of the antennae into the anal vent pushing it until you see it stick out the other end. By pulling it through you can invert the mudline or intestines without contaminating the meat. I like to use double fulcrum shears to cut along the bottom of each side of the belly and across the tail at the base. Grab a hold of the now loose exoskeleton and peal it off the belly like a banana. The tail is now ready to cook. For boiling drop the entire tail in water that is already boiling. The shell will start to turn orange the meat will turn white and the shell will start to release the tail. On the smaller lobsters that I like to eat this takes about 6 minutes. I actually prefer grilling them. They need to go shell side up on medium heat. Covering or butterflying them helps. Keep moving them around the coals every few minutes until the shell starts to release the meat. I encourage butterflying the tail if you don’t take my advice and go out to catch larger lobsters.
I never attempt to catch a lobster I don’t intend to eat. I look for lobsters I believe will meet the size criteria. I never attempt to catch a lobster I think is female. You might ask how I know. It’s simple Look at their legs then peak under her skirt. Seriously this is a valid answer. The rear legs of a female have an extra claw that looks like a thumb. Then as you look upwards under the tail, you may notice extra swimmerets or feathers. The tail of a female is generally more rectangular in shape where the male’s is more tapered.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse and fines can be considerable. Be environmentally friend when you are hunting lobsters. Take what is legal, what is in the limit, and only what you can tastefully eat.
BONUS SECTION: Thank you to Bill Westman our former Captain and Divemaster for these incredible pictures of lobsters preparing to mate and mating on a night dive at The Legends of Little St. James.
Until next time always make your total number of ascents equal your total number of descents.
Your really cool blogger,