By Kelly Stewart
On Oct. 1 at midnight, the season for California spiny lobster began for recreational fishers. (The commercial season begins Oct. 5). Our nearshore waters are now dotted with bobbing buoys while eerie underwater lights at night are carried by scuba divers out searching for their prized “bugs.” Each morning, boats loaded down with lobster pots check their traps and collect the much sought after crustaceans.
The California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus), common from Point Conception to Magdalena Bay in Baja Mexico, is named for its spine-covered carapace (shell) and two long spiky antennae, which it rubs together to make a loud noise, deterring predators. It lacks the giant claws that make the iconic Maine lobster so familiar.
Besides being a favorite dinner for humans, spiny lobsters are eaten by many fish such as horned sharks, cabezon and sea bass. It is also an important predator in the kelp beds and rocky habitats of Central and Southern California. Hiding under rock ledges during the day, spiny lobsters emerge to forage at night on sea urchins, mussels and worms, and scavenge on whatever else they may come across on the sea floor. Without lobster keeping the sea urchin population in check, urchins could seriously damage our diverse kelp forests.
From May through June, females carry developing egg bundles on the underside of their tail. In this state, they are said to be “berried” and they will carry the egg bundle for 10 weeks, finally releasing the hatched larvae into the sea. For six to nine months the larvae will drift in the currents, eventually transforming into a mini-lobster. Thought to live for 50 years or more, lobsters are fairly slow to mature and most that are captured at legal size are between 7 and 11 years old.
Kelly Stewart, Ph.D. is a postdoc with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Contact her at NaturalLaJolla@gmail.com.