Belize's Gold, The Caribbean Spiny Lobster

To many San Pedranos, June 15th is not just any other day. This day marks the beginning of lobster season, when the harvesting of one of the country's most valuable seafood exports is again allowed. The livelihood of many fisherman, as well as restaurant and hotel owners, is dependent on this crustacean. Although there has been a decrease in lobster fishing over the past twenty years due to an overall decrease in catch resulting from over-exploitation, lobster exportation is still a major contributor to the Belizean economy. For this reason, the importance of the Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus), the primary lobster caught in Belize, cannot be overlooked.

When the Spiny lobster hatches, it faces an uphill battle; of the 10,000 eggs that a female might release, only about 1% will survive past the first four weeks of life. The young lobster must go through four stages in the first month with the goal of becoming a competent swimmer. At this time, the young lobster begins the mission of finding a safe place on the bottom of the ocean on which to settle. While it matures, the features of the lobster become more distinct, including, a spine-studded shell, long antennae, and the absence of claws. To avoid the abundance of predators in this environment, the lobster spends the first year of its life hidden in some sort of crevice, while the next few years are spent hiding in seaweed or behind small rocks. These lobsters are particularly social, known to share their dens in coral reefs with other lobsters, even warning other lobsters of predators with loud sounds.

During its lifetime, the Spiny lobster will eat a wide variety of foods consisting of clams, mussels, crabs, and worms, and occasionally plants. There is evidence that lobsters have cannibalistic tendencies, feeding on other lobsters if given the chance. Just as the lobster will eat up to 100 different kinds of animals, there are at least as many animals that feed on lobster. Humans, naturally, are the primary consumers of lobster, followed by cod, flounder, eels, crabs, and seals.

An interesting physical characteristic that the Spiny lobster shares with all species of lobsters is that it sheds (molts) it shell up to 25 times in the first five years of life. Once the lobster becomes an adult, the molting event decreases to once a year. Molting the old shell and creating a new shell accommodates the growing lobster for at least another year.

After the shell is shed the lobster proceeds to eat its own shell and then find hiding for at least two weeks to allow its new shell to harden. It is during this short period following the molting that the female lobster is receptive to mating. Because the female's shell has not yet hardened, the male has to be particularly gentle in the mating process.

After mating is completed, the female stores the sperm for several months until she finally fertilizes and lays her 10,000 to 20,000 eggs. After an additional 9 to 11 months, the eggs will hatch. The entire life process of the lobster is relatively fragile; thus they are easily threatened by a number of impacts. For one, despite the open season restriction of July 15-February 15, "undersized" and "out of season" lobster are still taken illegally. Moreover, habitat destruction, such as mangrove clearance, threatens critical nursery habitat of lobsters. As a mainstay of Belize's economy (bringing in over Bz$18 million annually), it is critical that we protect and conserve the Spiny lobster by respecting and preserving our environment.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
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