The Lobster Wars

In one coastal Mexican town, a sustainable fishery anchors the community. So why has Florida outlawed the same fishing methods?

In the summer of 2014, the Florida lobster fishing community was at a near boiling point. For more than a decade, commercial divers and trappers here had been at each other’s throats. Public fishery policy meetings—normally staid affairs—had devolved into shouting matches. There were accusations of intimidation, vandalism, and, worst of all, lobster theft. Almost a dozen fishermen were sent to federal prison.

It all centered around a simple thing: a small underwater structure called a lobster house. More commonly known by its Spanish name, a “casita” is an artificial structure that provides shelter on the ocean floor. Casitas are not traps—lobsters can come and go as they please—but they make the animals easy picking for divers. Caribbean spiny lobsters (Panulirus argus), unlike their quarrelsome New England cousins (Homarus americanus), are highly social, preferring to huddle together in crevices and under coral heads. If you drop an old refrigerator in the water and wait for a month, there’s a good chance you’ll find it crawling with lobsters. Casitas are so effective that a single one can attract about as many lobsters in a season as six traditional traps, and much faster. Often, though, these shade structures are little more than trash tossed on the ocean floor—car hoods, sheets of corrugated metal, anything that casts a shadow—and that fact has been a source of conflict.

In 2014, trap fishermen, who catch lobsters using wood and wire boxes with one-way doors, argued that casitas were simply junk piles. Commercial divers, who dive and catch lobsters by hand on the ocean floor, insisted that diving the casitas was more sustainable than fishing with traps. Studies were done; media stories circulated for years. In the end, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sided with the trappers and began cracking down on casita divers.

Today if you talk to lobstermen in the Keys, which hold 80 percent of America’s spiny lobsters, they will tell you that the great casita debate is ancient history—a necessary step to cleaning up our cluttered oceans. But in the intervening years, a strange thing has happened. While the U.S. banned casitas, almost all of the other Caribbean countries embraced them. Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas, Belize and many others prefer them.

And NGOs like The Nature Conservancy now widely advocate for casitas as a way to protect coral reefs—and to and avoid the tragic diving accidents that have crippled or killed thousands of Central American lobster divers as poor fishermen hunt for every last lobster in their waters to feed demand from the U.S. and China.

Across the Caribbean, lobster populations have see-sawed for decades. In some places, they seem robust, while in others overfishing and disease have decimated them. Lobsters are the most economically important species in the region, so lobster-fishing policies quickly ripple across coastal ecosystems and economies. Finding sustainable fishing practices will determine the future of these coastal communities.

“The wonderful thing about the casitas—and why we promote casitas over traps—is that they allow the lobsters to come and go,” says Julie Robinson, a fisheries manager with The Nature Conservancy who works in Belize and has followed the debate for years. After all the work Robinson has done studying various methods, she has come to one conclusion: “The casitas are still more sustainable.”

Except in Florida, where they are illegal.

Caribbean Spiny Lobster Distribution

Although they are widely distributed, Caribbean spiny lobsters (Panulirus argus) are declining across much of their range. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists the species as Data Deficient, but cites threats that include disease, climate change, and over-exploitation.

Map data provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Four hours south of Cancún—past the college kids on spring break in Playa del Carmen, past the hippies and hipsters in Tulum, then another hour and half along a bumpy dirt road through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the end of a peninsula that drips like honey off the Mayan Riviera—is the tiny village of Punta Allen.

In some ways, Punta Allen is like any small Mexican coastal town. Coconut palms drop their fruit onto dirt roads, fishing skiffs line the beach, and the town square is dotted with ocean-themed murals and statues. But a sharp eye will notice subtle differences. None of the stray dogs are malnourished and most are unnervingly friendly. And, despite being a tourist town, many of the houses along the beach are not hotels or restaurants but fishermen’s homes. While other coastal towns in developing countries are facing widespread fisheries collapse, this village of a few hundred people is flourishing. That’s because lobster fishermen here have struck an unusual balance between respecting the ocean and gathering its bounty.

Punta Allen was not originally a fishing town. A century ago, the region hosted a strategic military outpost during Yucatán’s Caste Wars, which pitted Indigenous people against predominately white landowners and the Mexican government. After the war, a hurricane wiped out the original town, and the few remaining families moved to Punta Allen to grow coconuts or tend the lighthouse. There were no towering hotels in Cancún back then, no tourist shops along Playa del Carmen, or cruise ships jamming Cozumel’s port. The Punta Allen lighthouse was the only light for miles.

It was only when disease wiped out the coconuts that the lighthouse keepers turned to fishing, supplying the nascent Cozumel tourism industry after World War II. In those days, the fishing cooperative worked as many do in Latin America—scooping up everything they could in nets and eating what they couldn’t sell. Then they discovered casitas.

It’s not clear who first had the idea. It’s possible the ancient Maya tossed trees into the sea thousands of years ago to lure lobsters into shallower water. But some people here say the first to suggest it was a Cuban trader in the 1950s who often came by boat to trade goods for fish. (Mexicans often call casitas “Cuban shades.”) Those early casitas were primitive structures made of a sturdy tropical hardwood called chit. Through the 1970s and ’80s business was good and the fishermen prospered, eventually leveraging their wealth to build a processing plant, which they hoped would further increase profits. Then in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert slammed into the coast.

The community “was like the Titanic, and it sunk. Fishing was over,” says Emilio Pérez Mendoza, a descendent of the lighthouse keepers who started the town and is now secretary of the fishing cooperative that today practically runs it. Boats, nets, casitas, lobsters—everything was gone. The bank seized the processing plant. It was like nature pressed a giant reset button on the town. So Punta Allen had to do something new.

Invention began, as it often does, with desperation. Chit was no longer legal to harvest so the local fishermen’s co-op started building structures out of chicken wire and concrete. For 10 years they tinkered with designs: a little higher, now lower, now sloped toward the current. They found that by using casitas they could catch lobsters alive and sell them at higher prices. Most importantly, they divided up the ocean floor into parcels so that each fisherman had his own spot and his own casitas.

Before long, they had paid off their debts and the town came alive again. Soon they banned nets altogether, as well as tank diving. Today, fishermen are limited by how long they can hold their breath. Those lobsters that are too deep to reach on one breath provide young for the next season. The cooperative sets the minimum size limit several centimeters above the national legal size, and fishermen carefully measure every lobster they bring up. Permits are limited, and no one wants to run afoul of their colleagues and lose out.

Throughout the 1990s, while countries like Cuba saw their lobsters disappear to massive trapping operations, the population here flourished. The Punta Allen lobster fishery is known as among the best-managed in Mexico. It was the first in the region certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (followed by the casita fishery in the Bahamas). 

Other fishing co-ops come from all over to see Punta Allen’s casitas. The divers “are almost cooperative tourism guides now; they get so many visitors who come for inter-cooperative exchanges,” says Stuart Fulton, who works with a Mexican NGO called Comunidad y Biodiversidad (COBI) that works to spread sustainable fishing practices in the region. In Nicaragua, according to the United Nations, communities have reduced deaths from diving accidents by 40 percent by emulating Punta Allen fishing practices.

That, at least, is the story. But I’ve seen a lot of fisheries that claim to be sustainable and are anything but. I wanted to see casita fishing firsthand.

It’s almost the end of the season and the catch will be small, so Pérez Mendoza agrees to allow a journalist and photographer aboard his boat and inevitably slow him down a bit. I’m a solid diver and a decent swimmer, I assure him. Little do I know what I’m getting myself into.

We join Pérez Mendoza on a placid day, heading out from the verdant coast with the boat slapping the crystal-blue water after every wave. He uses a flat-bottomed skiff, called a lancha, that he’s modified for lobster work. Because the best market today is for live lobsters in China, locals invented a system that runs seawater from the boat bottom into a hold whenever the boat moves. With us are Pérez Mendoza’s nephew, Ricardo, a part-time fisherman who’s built like an action figure, and Magdiel, a professional diver who’s built like an action figure’s portly sidekick.

Pérez Mendoza pulls the lancha to a stop, examining his GPS. “Go, go,” he says, and Magdiel and Ricardo drop overboard, with their clumsy followers in tow. Underwater, the fishing becomes a choreographed dance. Ricardo dives to the bottom and checks if there are lobsters under the casita. He signals to Magdiel and plants his feet in the sand as the larger man swims down with a net. Magdiel, who lumbers about on land, now looks as graceful as a dolphin, moving in smooth, practiced arcs. Ricardo lifts the platform and Magdiel swipes his net through, pulling out half a dozen thrashing lobsters. If there are any stragglers, both men run them down by hand before casually swimming to the surface. It’s all over in less than a minute, though Ricardo occasionally stays down twice as long. Then it’s up onto the boat as the elder Pérez Mendoza guns it to the next spot. I’m not fishing but somehow I’m always the last aboard.

“If you come in late next time, I’m going to leave you here,” Pérez Mendoza says to me as I heave back onto the boat, panting. Everyone laughs, though Ricardo later says that if he ever dawdled as much as me, his uncle really would leave him behind.

That’s because every second they are not visiting a casita and pulling lobsters is a second wasted. There is no line to be checked or net to be pulled in; the only limit on what you take home is the number of casitas you can visit. But back in the boat, something truly unusual happens. Pérez Mendoza leafs through the lobsters like papers in a filing cabinet, pulling the smaller ones and tossing them overboard. Every now and then he lays one flat and measures it with calipers. In the old days, and indeed in most of Mexico, fishermen would just keep the undersized lobsters for eating. If you don’t take it, the thinking goes, someone else will.

But not here. Here, the legal size—larger than in the rest of the country—is a limit the town placed on itself to better manage the fishery. Over four hours, we hit 60 casitas and take home about 100 kilograms of lobster. After paying for the boat and dues to the plot owners, that’s about $340 for each fisherman. In a country where some fishermen pull in just $20 in a day, it’s a pretty impressive catch.

Sitting over drinks at the local seafood restaurant, Ricardo says it was a slow day, partly because they were dragging along two dawdling journalists. During the first two weeks of the season in July, they’ll hit twice as many casitas in the same amount of time, and triple their catch.

“You can see all of their little antennae sticking up out of the hold,” he says. “The only room left is in your pockets.”

And the money is good. Most days, Ricardo works in Tulum as an accountant. But even on a slow day like this, he makes the equivalent of two weeks’ wages in the office. He had an opportunity to work at a bigger firm for twice as much but declined because he wouldn’t give up fishing. It’s not just the money, he says—this is food for his soul. Every vacation, every weekend he can spare, he is here with his family, diving for lobster.

Throughout Mexico, the average age of fishermen is rising as young people leave the trade and fish populations plummet. But Magdiel, 36, and Ricardo, 34, see a bright future for lobster fishing. It’s a legacy and a part of their culture. Though neither have any interest in eating the things.

“Given the choice between three plates of lobster and a plate of hawkfish, I would take the hawkfish,” Ricardo says. Then, after a pause, “and feed the lobster to my dogs.”

Magdiel snorts into his beer. “Me too.”

As coral reefs around the world decline, Florida’s have been hit phenomenally hard with some of the worst bleaching in the hemisphere. Some estimates suggest that coral off the Florida Keys has declined from covering 30 or 40 percent of the area’s reefs to just 3 percent. (The reefs are also covered with algae, sponges, and other bottom-dwelling creatures.) The biggest drivers are warm spells caused by climate change, pollution, and disease, including a new pathogen that has wiped out 30 percent of the coral in some areas and shows no sign of letting up.

Compared with these unrelenting catastrophes, the impact of fishing gear isn’t a big threat to Florida’s oceans. That said, it’s hard to go underwater in the Keys without seeing discarded traps and ropes littering the seafloor. More than 80,000 traps and 1,000 miles of rope are lost in the region by the fishermen every year. Scientists also believe that more than a million lobsters a year may be dying in the water, when traps are lost to storms or their lines are cut by propellers (though trappers dispute this).

Oddly, fishing here has almost no effect on the lobster population itself, because few if any of the lobsters caught off Florida were born here. Lobsters spend the first part of their lives as tiny, translucent flotsam, drifting along with the current before settling down into a new home when they are about the size of a fingernail. The Caribbean currents are such that almost all the larvae hatched in Florida go north to the Carolinas. “The flow is generally from south to north,” says Tom Matthews, a researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. “Well over 90 percent of the lobsters that settle in Florida come from upstream, meaning other places in the Caribbean.” Genetic and ocean-current studies suggest that most lobsters in the Keys were born in either Cuba or Mexico.

In other words, Florida fishermen could catch every last lobster in the Keys and the next year they’d just come back, thanks to the lobsters in places like Punta Allen.

Compared to the Bahamas or Nicaragua, Florida isn’t a huge player in the global lobster market, yet at $50 million, lobster is the state’s most valuable fishery. And lobsters are a big part of the Keys’ culture and economy. Two-story lobster statues signal passing cars, and restaurants have giant lobsters hanging over their bars. Recreational divers come from around the world to pull in 680,000 kilograms (1.5 million pounds) of lobsters (roughly a third of what the commercial trappers take)—181,000 (400,000 pounds) of that in one two-day July spree. And the garlic sautéed lobster tails with a side of lobster bisque is to die for.

For generations, commercial divers, recreational divers, and trappers lived alongside each other in relative harmony. But in the late 1990s, just as Punta Allen was perfecting its concrete casitas, Florida divers started using their own, often built out of car hoods, refrigerators, or other refuse. Suddenly, lobster diving was easy. Whereas a trap might catch up to 6 kilograms (13 pounds) of lobster in a season, a casita might catch 10 times that in just over a month.

“These things are incredible. They are very good at aggregating lobsters,” says Matthews, one of the few biologists who has formally studied casitas.

In 2001, as the fishery suffered from a viral outbreak that was killing lobsters, casita catch actually surpassed traps that August, the biggest month of the lobster season. (Divers are done fishing by September, when the lobsters leave the shallows, while trappers can fish deeper water until April.) After that, the dynamic changed. Trap fishermen and fishery managers began vocally criticizing the “casita cowboys” they said were looting the ocean and tossing junk piles onto the seafloor.

They had a point. Unlike in Punta Allen, which has designated fishing segments, Florida divers could go anywhere they wanted. Many divers made more in a couple months than the trap fishermen did the whole year. Local fishermen say lobster divers would appear with flashy new cars and boats, often bought in cash. One diver, finally caught in 2012, made almost $400,000 in three years.

Other commercial divers argued for a clean, orderly system, modeled on Mexico, where casitas could be permitted, fixed to the ground, and tagged with GPS. They even offered to police themselves, the way Mexican divers do, and remove illegal casitas themselves. The fight got heated.

“It’s very, very political,” says Jim Sharpe, a former commercial diver and longtime Keys fisherman. “I kinda wish I’d never gotten involved in it because I got to see the inner workings of government.”

In 2008, NOAA, which oversees the massive marine park that links the Keys, released a damage assessment, the same kind of document they release after an oil spill, which found that casitas smothered seagrass and corals. Certainly that was true: The Keys were littered with hundreds of tons of scrap metal and homemade lobster shelters back then. But divers complained that the conversation seemed stuck on the illegal piles of junk and not the regimented, designed kinds used in places like Mexico.

As for Matthews, the more research he did—including one year where he created a mock casita fishery and “harvested” lobsters by driving them an hour away—the more he started to see the benefits of casitas. Although he’s careful not to pick sides in the debate, he’s found that casitas tripled the number of corals, sponges and other immobile creatures and increased fish 13-fold when used responsibly. The NOAA report determined that casitas damaged the area under them, but it made no mention of what happened above. In a region desperately in need of new coral, casitas, it seemed, could actually function like new reefs. For instance, natural reefs have a diagnostic “halo” around them—a donut of missing vegetation caused by creatures venturing out to feed. It’s something that artificial reef designers like to see because it means animals have settled in. Matthews was shocked to see them around casitas, too.

Best of all, no lobsters had to die unnecessarily. Florida Fish and Wildlife has found that hundreds of thousands of young lobsters are killed and used for bait each season. And then there are ghost traps. Go snorkeling in any reef in the Keys and you are likely to see at least one rope or lost trap. After a storm, it’s common to see a rope ball the size of a truck that has rolled across the ocean floor and up onto a beach.

Still, the fight over casitas became a pitched battle, as much about culture as lobsters. Divers accused trappers of being greedy and too lazy to get in the water, while trappers said divers were ruthless poachers. Trappers claimed that divers would raid their traps and cut their retrieval lines, and divers said that trapping boats would gun their engines just above the divers’ heads as they passed by.

In the end, NOAA had the last word. The agency said divers could continue working but could not place casitas. The official reason was that it’s simply illegal to place permanent structures in a protected area; indeed, casitas had never been legal in the first place. But many scientists and locals familiar with the debate say the real reason was that casitas are just too hard to monitor and enforce.

In 2014, Florida Fish and Wildlife agreed to stop efforts to legalize casita diving. By that time, a dozen lobster divers had been sentenced to federal prison for continuing to dive casitas. The government used sophisticated mapping software to find and pull about 100 tons of junk out of the water, though Matthews admits there are certainly still people diving casitas today.

“The success in Mexico isn’t just because of casitas; it’s because of the management structure that goes along with it,” says Steven Box, a vice president with the conservation NGO Rare and a lobster expert who has worked throughout the Caribbean to improve fishing practices. “If people believe that they are in competition with others, there is a natural tendency to try and fish as much as possible.”

This, it seems, is the fundamental problem with casitas in American waters. American fishing, and arguably American culture itself, is founded on the idea that people go out in their boats with an even playing field, may the best angler win. Talk of cooperatives and parcels elicits dirty looks and mumbled comments about communism, even from fishermen who would certainly be at the helm of such an organization.

“We’re not divers, we’re trappers. And it’s not going to change,” says Gary Graves, a longtime seafood broker and a fixture in the trapping community.

The average age of a Florida lobster trapper, though, is 56, and most of them say their kids just aren’t interested in fishing—nor could they afford it if they were. A new lobster boat, including engines, permits, and traps, costs about a million dollars—before you even shop for crew or gas. On top of that, in an effort to cull out part-timers or bad actors, regulators have been slowly cutting back the number of permits they allow.

“We have natural attrition because everyone’s getting old and they are dying off or selling out,” Graves says. “In 20 years we might have a boutique fishery of a few people.”

There’s also another problem. Thirty years ago, people say, you could set up a dinner table in the middle of the main highway in the Keys after dark, with no worry of being disturbed. Today, trucks run all day between Miami and some of the state’s most expensive real estate. Trappers often bus in deckhands—many from the same countries as the baby lobsters—from an hour away.

Ironically, by fighting against the casitas, Florida’s trappers fought to eradicate the solution to these very problems. In the end, casitas may be the only way for lobster fishing to remain sustainable, for lobsters and people alike. Time and again, biologists, divers and even a few trap fishermen said that if we could wave a magic wand and start from scratch, the best fishery would be some form of casita dive fishery. To some extent, that’s what happened in the village of Punta Allen after Hurricane Gilbert. But life does not provide many magic wands. Florida fishermen have invested millions in trap fishing—and diving simply requires a different set of skills.

“I had every intention to pass this down to the next generation of kids,” says a former commercial diver who declined to be named. “Because it’s a good little life. But guess what? Pffft”—he flips his hand as if sweeping off a table—“it went out the window.”

“We came up diving and fishing and making our living on the ocean,” says Jim Sharpe, who now works in real estate. “And we wanted our kids to be able to have that, and have a clean ocean.”

Five hundred miles and another world away, Ricardo Pérez Mendoza leans back in a wicker chair and sips his beer after a productive morning of diving. The wind is picking up across the sapphire water and he’s not looking forward to going back to the office the following day. But today, he’s still basking.

“I’ve always said I feel like a footballer—I get paid to do something I love,” he grins. “They’re supposed to do that out of passion or something, no? In the end, you keep on doing it because you like it. I love being in the water.”

Erik Vance

Erik Vance is a native Bay Area writer replanted in Mexico as a non-native species. He has written for The New York Times, Nature, Scientific American, Harper’s, National Geographic, and a number of other local and national outlets. His first book, Suggestible You, published in November 2016, is about how the mind and body continually twist and shape our realities. 

Dominic Bracco

Dominic Bracco II is a photographer, visual artist, playwright, and journalist. He is a recipient of a W. Eugene Smith fellowship and a Tim Hetherington Visionary Award. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, among others. He is a member of the photography collective Prime. Bracco lives in Mexico City.

Steve De Neef

Steve De Neef is a photo and video journalist who specializes in conservation stories that highlight the importance of our oceans. He frequently works with scientists and non-governmental organizations with the aim of shedding light on important conservation efforts, inspiring positive change, and influencing environmental policy.

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