Spiny lobsters are sold fresh live and frozen in raw tails and meat as well as whole, either blanched or fully cooked. Spiny lobsters are typically graded by the ounce and fresh supply is mostly available before the new year. These warmwater lobster tails will be smooth and have a spotted, greenish shell. It has a soft texture, delicate flavor and is frequently marketed as warmwater tails. The quality and texture of warmwater lobster tails varies considerably depending on handling. Unlike American lobster, spiny lobsters have a spiny hard shell for protection and lack large front claws. The California spiny lobster season runs from approximately October to March, with ~80% of the landings typically coming in the first half of the season. Buyer Beware: Avoid diver-caught tails that are mushy and textured from sitting too long on a boat. Some buyers recommend finding trusted brands and sticking with them since some producers add weight with excessive glaze or a tripoly solution soak.
Key sustainability sourcing notes for California spiny lobster based on landings from 2014-2016 and the most recent Seafood Watch assessments and MSC certifications as of March, 2019:
~75% of global California spiny lobster landings are MSC-certified (aka red rock lobster from Mexico)
~75% of global California spiny lobster landings meet a Seafood Watch "Best Choice (green)" recommendation (from Mexico) ~25% of global California spiny lobster landings meet a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" recommendation (from California) Global California spiny lobster landings in 2016 saw a decrease of ~25% compared to 2014 and a decrease of ~40% compared to 2012
The California spiny lobster is a large ten-legged crustacean that is reddish orange in color. Spines cover their hard outer shell, known as the exoskeleton. This shell does not grow with the lobster, so as the crustacean gets larger, the shell must be shed periodically. This process of shedding is known as molting. After a spiny lobster molts, it usually remains hidden for a few days so as to allow the new shell to harden for protection. Unlike the American lobster, spiny lobster do not have large claws. Instead, this species of lobster has two long antennae, that are covered with sensory hairs, extending from the front of their body. The lifespan of spiny lobsters can be difficult to determine because the species molts. It is thought that they can live for as long as 30 years, but as a species that is highly targeted by fishermen, most California spiny lobsters usually do not live longer than five to seven years. They have been known to achieve lengths of over three feet and can weigh upwards of 16 pounds.
Spawning occurs once a year during late spring through the summer. Male lobsters attach a sperm packet (called a spermatophore) onto the underside of the female lobster’s carapace. Females produce 50,000 to 800,000 eggs depending on their size and the eggs are carried on the underside of her tail. The eggs are fertilized when the female opens up the spermatophore using a small claw located at the end of each last pair of walking legs. Fertilized eggs remain attached to the female’s tail until they hatch around 10 weeks later.
Once a lobster hatches, it passes through 11 larval stages known as phyllosoma, which have small, transparent, flattened bodies and spider-like legs. Phyllosoma drift along with the currents, feeding on other planktonic animals. This stage can last for up to 10 months and phyllosoma have been found at the surface of the ocean to depths of over 400 feet. In its final stage, the larvae develop into what looks like a transparent, miniature adult lobster with very long antennae. After spending much of its early existence drifting offshore, these late stage larvae which can now swim head towards coastal shallow waters. They settle in rocky, plant-dominated habitats along the coast where they will spend the rest of their lives.
Spiny lobsters are omnivores. Adults primarily eat crustaceans, mollusks, algae, and vegetal material. As predators, lobsters can play an important role in maintaining the diversity of both intertidal and subtidal communities. Predation on kelp-eating species such as sea urchins helps to maintain a balance in kelp forest ecosystems, providing a more stable habitat for other species that rely on the kelp for food and shelter. Lobster are prey for a variety of species including fish, octopus, eels, and sharks.
California spiny lobsters are a temperate to subtropical species found along the West Coast of North America from Monterey, California to Manzanillo, Mexico – although small populations do occur in the Gulf of California between Bahía de los Angeles and Cabo Vírgenes. The majority of their population occurs between Point Conception, California and Magdalena Bay in Baja California, Mexico. California spiny lobsters occupy different habitats depending on their lifecycle stage. Larva are pelagic for a period between eight and nine months after which they begin to settle in coastal areas with macroalgae and surf grass. Juveniles will spend their first years in these nearshore areas in the surf grass and on shallow and rocky bottoms. Adults inhabit rocky substrates and reefs where they are protected and can hide in cracks and crevices during the day – often with other lobsters or different species. Adults also inhabit kelp forest and surf grass, but are found less frequently than juveniles in these environments. California spiny lobsters are nocturnal and will leave their “dens” at night to feed. They also conduct seasonal offshore-nearshore migrations – moving to deeper, offshore waters in the fall and winter and returning to shallower and warmer nearshore waters in the spring. Adults are generally found in deeper waters than juveniles and can reach depths as great as 240 feet (73 meters).
Science & Management
In 2011, the South Coast Lobster Research Group (SCLRG) was established to study how the MPA network established off the coast of California could affect spiny lobster populations. The group’s California Spiny Lobster Project looked at the abundance, size and behavior of the spiny lobster in several Southern California locations. The SCLRG’s research was conducted from 2011 to 2013 and was a collaborative effort between scientists, managers, stakeholders, and volunteers who worked together to establish baseline data for the spiny lobster in California’s coastal waters. This group focused on:
Quantifying spiny lobster density inside and outside of several MPAs in Southern California;
Linking spiny lobster densities and distribution to habitat features;
Quantifying and characterizing the movement behavior of spiny lobsters;
Using catch records from stakeholders and California Department of Fish and Wildlife to determine landings and catcher per unit effort (CPUE) for spiny lobsters; and,
Documenting any differences in fishing effort and efficiency after the MPA network was implemented.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) (formally the California Department of Fish and Game) manages the US commercial California spiny lobster fishery that occurs from Point Conception, California south to the Mexican border. Among regulations the CDFW has established for the management of California spiny lobsters includes:
A minimum size limit of 3¼ inches carapace length (carapace length is measured in a straight line from the back edge of the eye socket to the back edge of the body shell with both points along the midline of the back). Any lobster with a carapace length smaller than 3¼ inches must be immediately returned to the water. This allows those individuals a better chance at reaching sexual maturity and reproducing before capture;
An established fishing season that occurs from the first Wednesday of October to the first Wednesday after the 15th of March to help protect egg-bearing females from capture;
Bycatch restrictions – fishers can keep octopus, Kellet’s whelk, and crab (except Dungeness), but cannot retain any other species; and,
Gear restrictions such as escape ports to minimize capture of undersized lobsters and self-destruct devices to prevent ghost fishing in the instance where a trap is lost and continues to fish.
In order to harvest spiny lobster, commercial fishers must have a California Commercial Fishing License as well as a Lobster Operator Permit. There are two types of permits – transferable and non-transferable (which can only be used by the owner of the permit). In April 2016, CDFW adopted the California Spiny Lobster Fishery Management Plan (FMP) that established harvest control rules to manage the fishery. To support implementation of the FMP, new regulations have been adopted for the 2017-2018 lobster season. Amongst these new regulations include:
A trap limit of 300 traps for Lobster Operator Permit holders with the option of purchasing a second permit for an additional 300 traps – allowing a maximum deployment of 600 traps per Operator Permit. Additionally, one of these two permits must be a transferable permit;
Each trap must have valid trap tag with a unique ID for each fisher; and,
Extending the timeframe in which fishers must their service traps (meaning the act of hauling traps up and removing lobsters) from once every four days to once every seven days as well as extending the pre- and post-season gear deployment and retrieval period from six to nine days.
The state of California also has a network of no-take marine reserves and no-take conservation areas where fishing is prohibited. While not a direct regulation for the California spiny lobster fishery, these areas help protect spiny lobster populations. Additionally, there are other area restrictions and closures within the state that lobster fishers must adhere to.
The primary agency in charge of fisheries regulation in Mexico is Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentación (SAGARPA). Under SAGARPA, there are two agencies – the National Fisheries Commission (CONAPESCA) and the National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA). INAPESCA is responsible for providing the science for management recommendations while the CONAPESCA is in charge of fisheries regulation and enforcement. The CONAPESCA manages the Mexican California spiny lobster fishery under a Mexican Official Norm (NORM - 006 - PESC - 1993). Among management measures the law establishes are:
Minimum size limits;
A regulated fishing season (early October to mid-March) to protect egg-bearing females;
Gear restrictions on traps (escape ports for undersized lobsters and self-destruct devices to prevent ghost fishing);
Specific closed areas off-limits to fishing; and,
Restrictions on how long traps can remain in the water including their removal at the end of the season;
Additionally, the California spiny lobster fishery is regulated through limited access rights that limit the number of boats and/or traps that can be used by the different fishery cooperatives. Enforcement of regulations is carried out by the CONAPESCA although they are generally self-enforced by members of these local fishery cooperatives with eventual support by government authorities if and when needed.
California spiny lobsters, also known as red rock lobster, are fecund and inherently resilient to fishing pressure. Their sharp points also provide protection against predators. They are found along the Californian Coast to Mexico with a small number in the Gulf of California. In the mid-1970s, their population reached a record low due after decades of unregulated fishing. Since then, lobster abundance has increased and now appears stable. Lobster abundance is also strongly influenced by environmental conditions.
The overall status of the stocks is not currently known and there is concern about using commercial catch data as an indicator. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s latest Seafood Watch report called the uncertainty over catch per unit effort cause for moderate concern.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
These lobsters are usually caught using rectangular heavy wire mesh traps set and weighted down along rocky areas of the seafloor. These traps don’t cause significant damage to the ocean floor but a large number of them could have a negative effect on underwater environment over time. Some California spiny lobsters in warmer waters are also landed by divers.
Lobster traps are required to have escape ports for immature lobsters and in California the traps must all have metal crimps that rust out over time to reduce incidences of ghost fishing. Some interactions with sea birds, primarily cormorants, are known to occur but data about the extent is poor, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Bycatch occasionally includes octopus and sheepshead, which can be released alive. Overall bycatch in this fishery is considered minimal.
Management Effectiveness: In California spiny lobsters are managed by the California Department of Fish and Game while they’re managed by the National Commission for Fisheries and Aquaculture in Mexico. Management measurements in both lobster fisheries include seasonal closures, gear restrictions, minimum size limits, and restrictions on the number of permit holders allowed. Commercial catch data in California is used for monitoring, not scientific data. Currently the California Department of Fish and Game is developing a fishery management plan. However, it’s early to know whether this will take into account the important role lobster play in marine ecosystems, the Monterey Bay Aquarium noted. In Mexico, scientific stock assessments were carried out by the National Institute of Fisheries.