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Lobster Divers Know How to Pick Out Dinner

Fishing: Forget going to the market, it will be open season in California on the spiny crustaceans beginning Saturday.

September 28, 2000|STEVE CARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Diving near Corona del Mar last lobster season, Mike Eimers could hardly believe the vision before him--a 15-pound behemoth that was all spikes and spines, with a big, fat tail, just waiting for boiling and buttering.

"Lobzilla," Eimers said of the beast, now memorialized in a photo at Aquatic Center, his Newport Beach dive shop.

When California's spiny lobster season opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, few divers will have a shot at landing such a trophy. But thousands will have waited months for the moment, hauling out their SCUBA gear, scouting some of the prime locations along Orange County's coast, antsy for the start of the six-month season.

"It's crazy. It's kind of like gold fever," said Steve Barsky, a Santa Barbara diver who co-wrote the how-to book "California Lobster Diving" with his wife, Kristine, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

"Rationally, it's a lot cheaper to go down to the market" and buy a lobster, he said. "But when you pull a five- or six-pounder out of a hole, it's a real rush."

From Monterey to Manzanillo, the water will churn with divers' gloved hands grabbing for--and often missing--their prickly prey.

"It's like catching chickens in the water. It's kind of an art," said Eimers, who has been diving for nine years.

"Lobsters--they make you feel really stupid," said one of his customers, Brad Hepburn of Huntington Beach, as he browsed for dive flags and lights this week. "My wife is under the mentality I'm going to come back with bucket-loads of lobsters. If you get one, you feel like a king."

The daily limit is seven per person, but the undersea "bugs" can elude capture by swimming backward, hiding in deep holes and jerking free from unsuspecting divers.

It's human vs. crustacean, and may the best reflexes win.

The largest on record was a 16-pound 1-ounce lobster grabbed off Santa Catalina Island in 1968, according to state records. Most lobsters fall into the two-pound range, but Barsky was fortunate enough to wrestle a 10-pounder home a couple of years ago.

"You see a lobster that big, and underwater it looks even bigger," he said. "You think, 'Is it going to get me, or am I going to get it?' "

While commercial fishermen may use traps, non-commercial fishermen in California may use only their hands. So a sturdy pair of gloves is required, as spiny lobsters are aptly named.

"If you're timid, the lobsters are going to get away," Barsky said. Veterans suggest first pinning the lobster to a rock or the ocean floor, then getting a firmer grip on its back, while measuring with an approved gauge to make sure it isn't undersized. Any lobster that doesn't measure 3 1/4 inches along its carapace, the section from its eyes to the start of its tail, must be released.

They take about seven years to reach that length.

Generally larger than their famous cousins in Maine, the California lobsters lack the large, trademark claws of their Eastern counterparts. But the tail meat is the same dense, succulent flesh found spattered on paper bibs throughout New England, with a taste difference apparent to only the most discriminating palates, Barsky said.

Game wardens are continually on the lookout for lobster divers collecting underweight specimens, or poachers taking more than their share. Each illegal lobster taken can net up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail, and even forfeiture of SCUBA equipment in some flagrant cases.

Patrick Moore, state fish and game spokesman, said underweight lobsters must be protected to guarantee the survival of the species.

"Lobsters are not as plentiful as they used to be," he said. "There's just an awful lot of people fishing them commercially and recreationally, and people contribute to a level of pollution, which causes havoc to the environment."

A fishing license is required, and can be purchased at most sporting good stores or tackle shops, as well as through state wildlife authorities.

Many apparently think the rules and regulations are worth the trouble.

"Lobster opening is kind of an event. It's the reason a lot of people come back to diving," said Gordon Boivin, owner of Laguna Sea Sports in Laguna Beach. "I have some customers who were gearing up for lobster season six weeks ago."

The commercial lobster harvest in California has fluctuated in recent years--493,000 pounds last year, down from nearly 736,000 pounds in 1998.

The recreational catch is impossible to determine, because individuals don't record their lobster take, like the professionals do.

But Fish & Game biologists estimate recreational enthusiasts take between 6,000 and 14,000 lobsters per season, which ends March 21, 2001.

Prime lobster spots in Orange County include Crystal and Moss coves in Laguna Beach, the jetty off Newport Beach, the Los Angeles/Long Beach breakwater, San Clemente and Santa Catalina islands, and the Channel Islands.

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