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Hauling Up Illegal Lobster Traps in the Florida Keys

It’s like a scene from “CSI: Miami”—investigators pulling evidence out of the water, onto their boat. Only this isn’t evidence from a grisly crime scene: it’s devices from an illegal lobster fishing operation. A NOAA team is removing 300 of these devices, called “casitas,” in the Florida Keys over the next two months.

Casitas (Spanish for “little houses”) are used to catch spiny lobsters by providing places for them to gather. Fishermen use them to illegally catch as many as 1,500 lobsters a day—far exceeding the daily catch limit of 250 lobsters.

The devices don’t resemble traditional wooden lobster traps. “Casitas look like six-inch-high coffee tables and can be made of various materials,” like cinder blocks, lumber, and sheets of metal, explains NOAA marine habitat restoration specialist Sean Meehan.

Meehan is overseeing the removal effort, which is using underwater robots and sonar surveys to find devices in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. More than 100 previously unknown casitas have been found so far. After they’re located, crews haul them out of the water to be disposed of or recycled.

Illegal fishing isn’t the only issue with these devices—they can also damage underwater habitat. Casitas can smother corals, sea fans, and sponges. They can also scrape across seagrass and other habitats when strong currents and storms move them across the seafloor. But simply removing the casitas allows the seafloor to recover.

The removal effort is part of a criminal case against a commercial diver who used casitas for years to poach spiny lobsters from sanctuary waters. An estimated 1,500 casitas remain in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters, only a portion of which will be removed in the current effort.

Posted July 16, 2014.