The Fishery

Fast Facts:

  • Managed by California Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Season: Early October- Mid March
  • Trap based fishery

FYI: This post contains probably more information than you will ever need to know about the California spiny lobster fishery. However, I wanted to provide as much information as possible for those of you who are interested. Below is a quick summary of the fishery. If you read only that, you will have enough knowledge to understand and follow along with future posts. Below that is more detailed information about the fishery. You can read all of it to become a fishery expert or just the sections that interest you most!

Quick Summary of the Fishery:

In order to harvest lobsters in California the commercial fishermen must have a California Commercial Fishing License as well as a Lobster Operator Permit. They must also follow regulations set by the state. Spiny lobsters are caught in wire-mesh baited traps and serviced with boats during a season that opens the first Wednesday of October and closes the first Wednesday after the 15th of March every year. The majority of lobsters are harvested in the first half of this season.


The California Spiny Lobster commercial fishery occurs along the coast of Southern California from Point Conception, south to the US-Mexican border (there is also a Mexican fishery). The fishery is managed by the state of California through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Based on the most recent Status of the Fishery Report in 2011, the population is healthy and the fisheries are sustainable. There is a commercial fishery and recreational fishery. This article will focus only on the commercial fishery. The fishery is currently in the process of adopting a Fishery Management Plan (FMP), which may change some of the current regulations.

The fishery is fairly small, in terms of landings, yet valuable. In 2014 California commercial fishermen landed over 951 thousand pounds of spiny lobster. However, despite landing less than 1 million pounds, it was valued at over 18 million dollars, ranking it the 47th most valuable fishery in the United States in 2014 (out of 485) and one of the most valuable in the state of California. Demand for California spiny lobster is extremely high and prices reflect that. In the 2014 season, the average boat price was around $19/lb.

A Bit of History:

The California commercial fishery has existed since at least 1872 when spiny lobster was first shipped from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. From this point on, demand for California spiny lobster skyrocketed as commercial lobster fisheries spread throughout the entire southern California coastline.


The California spiny lobster fishery is a limited entry fishery. Lobster fishermen must possess both a Commercial Fishing License and a Lobster Operator Permit in order to fish for lobster in California. Permits must be renewed every year. During the 2015-2016 season, the Commercial Fishing License for residents cost $136.73 and the Lobster Operator Permit renewal fee cost $377.25. Permits can be transferable or non-transferable. Non-transferable permits can only be used by the owner of the permit. Once that owner of a non-transferable permit stops fishing, the permit leaves the fishery with them. (You may not sell a non-transferable permit.) Transferable permits may be bought and sold on the open market. Prices vary, however it is not unusual to see a Lobster Operator Permit sell for over $100,000. There are currently 147 transferable permits and 48 non-transferable permits within the fishery.

There are also Lobster Crewmember permits. These are “required for each person who accompanies and assists any lobster operator permit holder in the commercial take of spiny lobster and who does not qualify for a lobster operator permit. The lobster operator permit holder must be present whenever a lobster crewmember is taking, possessing, or transporting spiny lobster for commercial purposes.”  During the 2015-2016 season a Lobster Crewmember permit cost $179.74. 

Gear Restrictions:

A fisherman with a lobster operator’s permit may only take lobsters using traps. The traps are generally made from wire mesh and have restrictions such as mesh size, escape gap requirements, and self-destruction requirements to prevent ghost fishing (when lost fishing gear continues to fish). The escape gap is a hole in the side of the trap that allows small sublegal lobsters to exit the trap. The traps also must be marked with buoys with the permit number clearly labeled. The traps must be serviced (hauled up and lobsters removed) every 4 days (96 hours). 

Carapace length is measured in a straight line from the rear edge of the eye socket to the rear edge of the body shell with both points along the midline of the back.

Size Restrictions:

One of the most important restrictions within the fishery is the minimum size requirement to keep a legal lobster. The size limit is set at 3¼ inches carapace length. Carapace length is measured in a straight line from the rear edge of the eye socket to the rear edge of the body shell with both points along the midline of the back. Each fisherman must carry a measuring device and measure each lobster caught immediately upon removal from the trap. No lobsters with a carapace length smaller than 3¼ inches may be kept or sold. If caught, they must be quickly returned back to the ocean. This measure helps ensure sustainability in the fishery by allowing the lobsters to reproduce at least once before reaching legal size. 

Season Closures:

The California spiny lobster fishery opens the first Wednesday of October and closes the first Wednesday after the 15th of March. The majority of lobsters are caught during the first half of the season (80%). No lobster may be caught outside of this time. The off-season is designed to protect the lobsters when females are carrying eggs. 

Incidental Catch:

Lobster traps do not always only catch lobster. Occasionally other species may also be caught in the trap. A lobster operator permit holder may keep Kellet’s whelk, Octopus, and species of crab (except Dungeness crab). Every other species incidentally caught must be returned to the water immediately. Because of the nature of the trap fishery, almost all of the incidental catch is released alive and healthy resulting in very low post catch mortality. 

Additional Restrictions:

Some other commercial fishery restrictions include but are not limited to, area closures in all of the bays and harbors in Southern California, the east side of Catalina Island, and Santa Monica bay. In addition, traps are not allowed to be placed within 750 feet of piers and jetties. These closures create a separate area for recreational fishermen to fish and also are designed to ensure clear passage of other vessels into bays and harbors. There are also a series of no-take state marine reserves where fishing is not allowed.

Fishermen are required to keep a daily lobster fishing log. They are also required to remove their gear at the end of the season. Any lost gear, must be reported.

Proposed Future Changes:

The 2016 Fishery Management Plan Draft is currently proposing a few changes to the fishery. If adopted, these changes would not take place until the 2017-2018 season. The biggest change would be the implementation of a trap limit within the fishery. There is currently no trap limit. The proposed rule would set the trap limit at 300 traps per permit. Permit holders would also have the option of purchasing a second permit for an additional 300 traps, resulting in a 600 trap maximum total. Along with a trap limit, the change would also require traps to be marked with a trap tag that would have a unique ID for each fisherman.  The idea of the tags is to ensure accountability for lost traps to help prevent ghost fishing as well as to make sure that no one is fishing more than the 300 traps per permit. 

Another proposed change would be changing the requirement of servicing the traps from every 4 days to every 7 days. This will allow for more flexibility for the fishermen to go out when conditions are safe and weather permits.

Whale Entanglements:

The issue of whale entanglement in trap-based fisheries has gained a lot of publicity in recent years due to high numbers of whales being reported entangled in fishing traps. Whale entanglements are accidents where no one wins. It is harmful for the whale, which can die if not freed and costly for a fisherman who loses his expensive gear. No one is exactly certain about why there has been such an increase in entanglements. There are a number of theories for why this may be. Some theories include: whale population growth, more people on the water observing the entanglements, El Niño and fluctuations in bait fish populations causing whales to come closer to shore in search of food, or more traps in the water. There is currently a collaborative effort between environmental NGOs, commercial lobster fishermen, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to help learn more about the issue to help prevent future entanglements. NMFS is holding classes for commercial fishermen to become first responders for entangled whales, since they are often the ones on the water spotting them first. Fishermen are being trained on how to respond to the entanglements, who to contact, and what sort of information to collect. In addition, when a whale is spotted with a buoy and line wrapped around it, spotters can call in the whale and report the permit number on the buoy to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CADFW).  CADFW can then contact the permit owner and NMFS to connect them and allow them to share information that is needed to learn more about why the whale might have become entangled. It is a group effort with everyone working together to avoid future entanglements.