There are several species of spiny lobster in the world; in the St. Croix East End Marine Park, we often see Panulirus argus—the Caribbean Spiny Lobster.
The Caribbean spiny lobster is found throughout the western Atlantic from the coasts of North Carolina to Brazil and the western Gulf of Mexico to the eastern reaches of the Caribbean Sea.
Within that range, Caribbean spiny lobsters live in shallow water though they have been found at 90 meters depth. Females move deeper to spawn. The females hold fertilized eggs on their thorax where they grow hard and black. Then she deposits them in a dark, protected spot. From there, the eggs hatch into a larval stage; they look like tiny, swimming spiders. Larval lobsters are planktonic–nearly microscopic floating or drifting organisms.
As plankton, the larval lobsters float around for a year of more, gradually growing larger, molting many times and developing into swimming peuruli—a larger larval stage. When the pueruli find a suitable bottom habitat like a thick mangrove root system or tall seagrass, they molt and become benthic juveniles, or young bottom-dwelling lobsters. They remain in these safe, shallow environments until they grow into adulthood, molt again, and move toward deeper reef habitat to mate. It takes about three years for an egg to pass through the four developmental stages to reach adulthood.
You can see Caribbean spiny lobsters in their favorite hiding spaces when you snorkel or dive. They like to crawl under rocks and reefs but are sometimes found walking through tall seagrass beds too. But that doesn’t save them from predators! Hawksbill sea turtles, nurse sharks, and people like to eat spiny lobsters.
If you want to eat a Caribbean spiny lobster, you’ll need to catch one without spears, gaff hooks, or gigs. The carapace must be at least 3.5 inches, and you cannot keep any berried lobsters–females with visible eggs.
Finally, if you’re in the St. Croix East End Marine Park, you can only catch adult, non egg-bearing lobsters without spears, gaff hooks, or gigs within the Open Fishing Zones (the bright yellow zone below–over 80% of the park).
If you’d like to learn more about Caribbean spiny lobsters, read about them at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website, Keys of Nature , at the Smithsonian Institute , or in your favorite library!
(Featured image of Spotted Spiny Lobster from reefguide.org)