Caribbean Spiny Lobster

Caribbean Spiny Lobster

Panulirus argus


    Crawfish, Rock Lobster, Bug, Florida Lobster, Langosta espinosa


    U.S. wild-caught from North Carolina to Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands



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Caribbean Spiny Lobster

A Caribbean spiny lobster on the sea floor, spotted during a 2010 NOAA expedition in the U.S. Virgin Islands to map underwater habitats and the marine life they support.


Several species of spiny lobster are found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. Spiny lobsters lack the large front claws of the familiar American lobster and are harvested instead for their tail meat. In fact, the item marketed as "lobster tail" is usually from a spiny lobster.

Also known as crawfish, Caribbean spiny lobster is harvested by U.S. commercial fishermen as well as recreational and commercial scuba divers off the southeastern United States and in the Caribbean. The majority of the U.S. harvest of spiny lobster comes from Florida, mainly the Florida Keys. Commercial lobstering is very important to the local economy. To help conserve the spiny lobster resource and sustain this valuable fishery, state and federal fishery managers restrict the size and amount of lobster fishermen can harvest, as well as how, when, and where they can harvest them. The spiny lobster population in this area is currently stable and abundant.

Management not only seeks to protect the spiny lobster resource in U.S. waters, but measures also apply to imports of spiny lobster. Large quantities of spiny lobster are harvested outside U.S. waters at a smaller size than allowed in the continental U.S. and U.S. Caribbean. These size limits are designed to allow spiny lobster to reproduce before they’re harvested. Because the United States is a major importer of spiny lobster, regulations prohibiting imports of spiny lobster below U.S. size limits are intended to limit, if not eliminate, the market for legally and illegally harvested undersized spiny lobster.

Looking Ahead

Due to both high market value and limited supply, there has been considerable interest in growing spiny lobster in aquaculture operations for both research and commercial use. Past studies have indicated that the tropical species of spiny lobster (including Caribbean) have the most promise for commercial production because they grow relatively quickly and are highly marketable. Research is ongoing worldwide.

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Caribbean spiny lobster is found along the continental shelf of the southeastern United States from to North Carolina to Texas, in Bermuda, throughout the Caribbean Sea, and south to Brazil. They live just below the water surface to depths of 1,650 feet. Larval spiny lobster float in the water column. As they grow, they swim to nearshore habitats and settle in dense vegetation, especially among macroalgae. They live here until they reach about 0.6 to 0.8 inches, then find shelter in crevices provided by large sponges, octocorals (soft corals), and solution holes until they are about 1-1/2 inches long. When they reach 2 to 3.15 inches, Caribbean spiny lobsters begin to travel from their nearshore nursery habitat to coral reefs and other offshore habitats. Adult spiny lobster move along shore and offshore seasonally, migrating in single-file lines to deeper water to escape cold and turbid waters.



Lobsters grow by molting – they vacate their old shells while simultaneously absorbing water, expanding their body size. They molt about 25 times in their first 5 to 7 years of life. It takes them about 2 years to grow to the 3-inch carapace (shell) legal-harvesting size. They molt about once per year when they’re older and can grow up to 15 pounds and longer than 3 feet.

In the southeastern United States, females are able to reproduce when they reach 2.75 to 3 inches carapace length. In the Caribbean, they mature when they reach 3.6 inches. In the Florida Keys, spiny lobster spawn from April through September on offshore reefs, and they spawn throughout the year in the Caribbean. The male spiny lobster deposits sperm packets on the underside of the female. She scratches them to release sperm as she releases her eggs (between 500,000 to 1.7 million eggs each time they spawn). The female carries the fertilized eggs beneath her tail, and is referred to as “berried.” The eggs hatch in about 4 weeks. Scientists are not certain about the life span of spiny lobster but believe they can live 15 years or more.

Young spiny lobster feed on soft-bodied plankton (tiny floating plants and animals). Juveniles and adults are carnivores, preying on snails, crabs, and clams. They are nocturnal, inhabiting coral reefs, burrows, and dens during the day and foraging for food at night. A variety of fish feed on spiny lobster larvae. Many predators—including groupers, snappers, sharks, skates, turtles, and octopuses—feed on juvenile and adult spiny lobster.



Spiny lobsters get their name from the forward-pointing spines that cover their bodies to help protect them from predators. Caribbean spiny lobsters have a reddish brown shell, marked with occasional dark spots and two large, cream-colored spots on the top of the second segment of the tail. They have long, horn-like antennae over their eyes that they wave to scare off predators, and smaller antennae-like “antennules” that sense movement and detect chemicals in the water. Spiny lobsters lack the large front claws of American lobsters.



Scientists from NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center and Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute monitor landings of Caribbean spiny lobster. Scientists, managers, and stakeholders assess the status of the Caribbean spiny lobster stocks through the Southeast Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR) process.



In 2012 all stocks (Gulf of Mexico/South Atlantic, and the Caribbean) were assessed but population status is still unknown. In Florida, the amount of spiny lobster capable of reproducing (spawning biomass) has increased over time, especially from 2002 to 2005. However, the results of the latest assessment (2012) were uncertain and scientists were not able to clearly determine whether the stock is overfished. Lobsters spend a long time in the larval stage traveling with the currents. This leads scientists to suspect that young lobsters that survive to adulthood (recruits) in the United States come from many other areas. Recent genetic studies have shown almost all recruits in U.S. waters are from the Caribbean. Therefore, the spawning biomass in the greater Caribbean area is more relevant to the population status than the spawning biomass in Florida.

Scientists were not able to determine the current status for the spiny lobster stocks in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico/South Atlantic because the data from the latest assessment was uncertain.


Harvesting Caribbean Spiny Lobster

Commercial fishermen harvest spiny lobsters either by diving or using wooden, plastic, or metal traps. Fishermen commonly attach a buoy to each trap but sometimes string traps along a trap line, with each end of the line marked with a buoy. Commercial traps are weighted with cement and must have a degradable escape panel to prevent “ghost fishing” (when a lost or abandoned trap continues to capture lobsters or other species). Also, fishermen generally use undersized lobster (known as “shorts”) as bait to attract legal-sized lobsters; mortality of these undersized lobsters is around 10 percent. The State of Florida also runs two programs disclaimer dedicated to removing lost and abandoned traps from state waters and has the authority to expand those programs into federal waters.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Governments of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, and the South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Fishery Management Councils.

Current management:
Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico: Fishery Management Plan for Spiny Lobster in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Commercial Regulations for Spiny Lobster disclaimer U.S. commercial fishermen (and to a large extent, recreational fishermen) primarily harvest spiny lobster off South Florida, especially in the Florida Keys. In order to streamline management between state and federal waters, the Councils’ fishery management plan essentially extends the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s regulations for the state fishery to federal waters off Florida.

  • Fishermen must have a permit to harvest spiny lobster.
  • Commercial trap reduction program to stabilize the lobster fishery by reducing the total number of traps. The number of traps was reduced from 750,326 in 1993 to 492,253 in 2010.
  • Annual catch limit of 7.32 million pounds; if annual harvests approach this limit, managers will determine whether regulations need to change.
  • Fishing season closed April 1 through August 5 off Florida and the Gulf states to protect spiny lobsters during the peak of their spawning season.
  • In federal waters off Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, commercial and recreational fishermen are limited to six lobsters per person per day. (In Florida, the same limit applies to recreational fishermen only.)
  • In federal waters off the Carolinas and Georgia, harvesting is allowed year-round but harvest for all fishermen is limited to two lobsters per person per day, and no egg-bearing females may be harvested.
  • Spiny lobsters must be larger than 3 inches carapace length to be harvested, allowing most lobsters to spawn before they are harvested.
  • Fishermen may not use spears, hooks, piercing devices, explosives, or poisons to harvest spiny lobster and must have biodegradable escape panels on non-wooden traps.
  • Fishermen are not permitted to harvest egg-bearing lobsters.
  • In a number of marine protected areas in southern Florida, the harvest of spiny lobster is prohibited at all times.
  • Two minimum size restrictions for importing spiny lobster into the United States: one applies to spiny lobster imported into any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States other than Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands; the other, more severe restriction applies to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These restrictions also prohibit imports of egg-bearing spiny lobsters, spiny lobsters stripped of eggs, and spiny lobster tail meat that is not in whole tail form with the exoskeleton (shell) attached.
  • In 2012, sixty areas with valuable colonies of staghorn and elkhorn corals were closed to commercial lobster fishing in the Florida Keys. Managers hope that by closing these areas threatened species of corals will be protected from damage by fishing gear.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands: Fishery Management Plan for the Spiny Lobster Fishery of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

  • Annual catch limit allocated among the three island groups (Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and St. Thomas/St. John).
  • Spiny lobsters must be larger than 3.5 inches carapace length to be harvested.
  • Fishermen may not use spears, hooks, piercing devices, explosives, or poisons to harvest spiny lobster and must have self-destructing fastenings on panels and doors of their traps. Traps, pots, buoys, and boats should be identified and marked.
  • Fishermen may not bring egg-bearing female lobsters aboard a vessel (they may be kept in pots or traps until the eggs are shed).
  • Spiny lobsters must be whole when they are brought to port.
  • Same restrictions on importing spiny lobster as above.

Annual Harvest

In the southeastern United States, from 2006 to 2010 annual commercial harvests of spiny lobster averaged around 5,077 thousand pounds.

In 2011, more than 5.8 million pounds of spiny lobster were harvested from the ocean.



Measured in dollars, the spiny lobster fishery is the largest commercial fishery in Florida, and in 2011 combined landings from all states were valued at more than $38 million. 



Recreational anglers harvest spiny lobsters primarily by diving. Off Florida, there is a special recreational 2-day season before the commercial season starts. The regular recreational season is the same as the commercial season. Regulations disclaimer limit the amount of spiny lobster anglers can harvest per trip.  Like the commercial fishery, spiny lobsters must be larger than 3 inches carapace length to be harvested. Undersized lobster must be released unharmed immediately without removal from water. Anglers may not harvest egg-bearing spiny lobsters and are prohibited from using spears, hooks, piercing devices, or explosives.

In the U.S. Caribbean, as well as in state waters (Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands), harvest is open year-round. As in the commercial fishery, spiny lobsters should have a carapace length of 3.5 inches or greater to be harvested. Other landing and gear restrictions discussed above also apply to U.S. Caribbean waters. In U.S. federal waters, there is a bag limit on the amount of spiny lobsters recreational fishermen can harvest per day.



There are 30 or so species of spiny lobster found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. Spiny lobsters lack the large front claws of the familiar American lobster and are harvested instead for their tail meat. In U.S. markets, they’re sold as warmwater or coldwater tails, depending upon where they were captured. Brazil and the Caribbean are the main sources for warmwater tails; Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa supply coldwater tails. Caribbean spiny lobster is the most common warmwater tail on the U.S. market (rock lobster, Panulirus cygnus, from Australia is the main coldwater species).

Coldwater tails tend to be more tender and succulent than warmwater tails. They also shrink less during cooking. Tail meat is firm, mild, and sweet. Raw tail meat is nearly translucent, with a pink, cream, or whitish-gray tint. Cooked tail meat should be firm and snowy white with red tinges but no dark spots. Spiny lobsters are sold in a number of frozen forms (whole, split, tails, or meat) or live. A spiny lobster can stay alive out of water for several days if kept in a cool, moist environment. (Seafood Handbook, 2011) disclaimer



Fresh: August to April, but fishing drops sharply after the first of the year; frozen: year-round.



Spiny lobster is low in saturated fat and is a very good source of protein and selenium.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 112
Protein 20.60  g
Fat, total 1.51  g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.237  g
Carbohydrate 2.43 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 70 mg
Selenium 46.2  mcg
Sodium 177  mg

Caribbean Spiny Lobster Table of Nutrition



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