Cephalopods, Crustaceans, & Other Shellfish
Caribbean Spiny Lobster
Tropical to subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico
Coral reefs and associated seagrass beds and sand flats
Subphylum Crustacea (crabs, shrimps, and relatives), Family Palinuridae (spiny lobsters)
The Caribbean spiny lobster is one of the largest crustaceans on coral reefs and seagrass beds in the Caribbean Sea and adjacent waters and is one of the most valuable fishery resources for every country throughout its range. Along with true crabs, prawns, and other lobsters, the Caribbean spiny lobster is a decapod; it has ten legs. It is covered with a spiny exoskeleton that provides it some protection from potential predators, but it remains the favorite prey of many species, including nurse sharks and Nassau groupers.
During the day, Caribbean spiny lobsters remain hidden in caves, under ledges, and in crevices on the reef surface. During the twilight hours and at night, individuals are much more active and forage along the reef for small snails and crabs, decaying organic matter, and some plants. Caribbean spiny lobsters will eat most things that they find. Unlike the famous Maine lobster, Caribbean spiny lobsters do not have enlarged front claws and are harmless to people. Even so, if a SCUBA diver or snorkeler grabs onto one without gloves, the sharp spines covering the head and body may cut the hand.
Like in all decapods, the Caribbean spiny lobster’s shell really is a skeleton on the outside of its body. The exoskeleton does not expand, and therefore the lobster must molt (or shed) it regularly in order to grow bigger. Before molting, an individual begins building a new, larger skeleton inside the existing one. As it gets too big to be contained, it splits open the outer shell, and the new exoskeleton hardens. During this process, the new exoskeleton can be soft for several hours, and the lobster is highly vulnerable to predation.
Caribbean spiny lobster populations are declining throughout their range and have been mostly depleted in some areas, but scientists do not have sufficient information to understand whether or not they are vulnerable to extinction. They are highly sought after for their meat and are one of the most valuable species in the Caribbean. For this reason, they are vulnerable to overfishing. Fishers throughout their range catch Caribbean spiny lobsters by free diving or SCUBA diving to catch them by hand or by setting numerous, baited traps. Using these methods, a team of fishers can capture nearly every individual in an area. This species is harvested through a managed fishery throughout its range. Regulations on time of year and location where the Caribbean spiny lobster can and cannot be captured are defined by most countries where it is fished. Unfortunately, poaching and other forms of illegal fishing, plus fishery regulations that are not based on the best science, threaten this species, and populations will likely continue to decline. Along with queen conch, the Caribbean spiny lobster is one of the most valuable exports for small Caribbean countries, and a collapse in this fishery would threaten coastal economies in many places.
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