NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

With Lobster Poacher Caught, NOAA Fishes out Illegal Traps from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary


This is a post by Katie Wagner of the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division.

On June 26, 2014, metal sheets, cinder blocks, and pieces of lumber began rising to the ocean’s surface in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This unusual activity marked the beginning of a project to remove materials used as illegal lobster fishing devices called “casitas” from sanctuary waters. Over the course of two months, the NOAA-led restoration team plans to visit 297 locations to recover and destroy an estimated 300 casitas.

NOAA’s Restoration Center is leading the project with the help of two contractors, Tetra Tech and Adventure Environmental, Inc. The removal effort is part of a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from sanctuary waters. An organized industry, the illegal use of casitas to catch lobsters in the Florida Keys not only impacts the commercial lobster fishery but also injures seafloor habitat and marine life.

Casitas—Spanish for “little houses”—do not resemble traditional spiny lobster traps made of wooden slats and frames. “Casitas look like six-inch-high coffee tables and can be made of various materials,” explains NOAA marine habitat restoration specialist Sean Meehan, who is overseeing the removal effort.

The legs of the casitas can be made of treated lumber, parking blocks, or cinder blocks. Their roofs often are made of corrugated tin, plastic, quarter-inch steel, cement, dumpster walls, or other panel-like structures.

Poachers place casitas on the seafloor to attract spiny lobsters to a known location, where divers can return to quite the illegal catch.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita. (NOAA)

“Casitas speak to the ecology and behavior of these lobsters,” says Meehan. “Lobsters feed at night and look for places to hide during the day. They are gregarious and like to assemble in groups under these structures.” When the lobsters are grouped under these casitas, divers can poach as many as 1,500 in one day, exceeding the daily catch limit of 250.

In addition to providing an unfair advantage to the few criminal divers using this method, the illegal use of casitas can harm the seafloor environment. A Natural Resource Damage Assessment, led by NOAA’s Restoration Center in 2008, concluded that the casitas injured seagrass and hard bottom areas, where marine life such as corals and sponges made their home. The structures can smother corals, sea fans, sponges, and seagrass, as well as the habitat that supports spiny lobster, fish, and other bottom-dwelling creatures.

Casitas are also considered marine debris and potentially can harm other habitats and organisms. When left on the ocean bottom, casitas can cause damage to a wider area when strong currents and storms move them across the seafloor, scraping across seagrass and smothering marine life.

“We know these casitas, as they are currently being built, move during storm events and also can be moved by divers to new areas,” says Meehan. However, simply removing the casitas will allow the seafloor to recover and support the many marine species in the sanctuary.

There are an estimated 1,500 casitas in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters, only a portion of which will be removed in the current effort. In this case, a judge ordered the convicted diver to sell two of his residences to cover the cost of removing hundreds of casitas from the sanctuary.

To identify the locations of the casitas, NOAA’s Hydrographic Systems and Technology Program partnered with the Restoration Center and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. In a coordinated effort, the NOAA team used Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (underwater robots) to conduct side scan sonar surveys, creating a picture of the sanctuary’s seafloor. The team also had help finding casitas from a GPS device confiscated from the convicted fisherman who placed them in the sanctuary.

After the casitas have been located, divers remove them by fastening each part of a casita’s structure to a rope and pulley mechanism or an inflatable lift bag used to float the materials to the surface. Surface crews then haul them out of the water and transport them to shore where they can be recycled or disposed.

For more information about the program behind this restoration effort, visit NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program.

Katie Wagner.Katie Wagner is a communications specialist in the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Her work raises the visibility of NOAA’s effort to protect and restore coastal and marine resources following oil spills, releases of hazardous substances, and vessel groundings.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

4 thoughts on “With Lobster Poacher Caught, NOAA Fishes out Illegal Traps from Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

  1. Hiram Concepcion “First Off They Are NOT Traps”. They are Habitats that Increase the survival of Juvenile Lobsters. Most if not all are put in the Gulf and away from Our Endangered Coral Reefs. Does it make more sense to Dive for Lobsters on the Corals or to have Commercial Lobster Fisherman continue to drop their traps and destroy our Corals? As usual if you want it wrong let Our Government do it. As a Student Marine Biologist we placed and studied the Habitats . They were very productive in Biodiversity . I dont agree with much about the Communist Island of Cuba But they have the science of Lobster down . they place and maintain Habitats in various Environmental Zones from Baby to Adult s . Thats why the Little Island of Cuba leads the world in Lobster production.
    Its an enforcement Issue. it he Commercial diver has more than 250 Lobster caught anywhere Its Illegal

  2. Seems like a waste of time and resources to remove these casitas. I would like to read a study or report that shows that these do harm and do not add habitat where none existed before. I’m not saying everyone should dumps in the water or make these, but are there better uses for our tax dollars than removing them?

    • Hello David,
      Thanks for reading the blog and taking time to write your questions. There are many studies and accounts showing that placing any kind of material on the seafloor smothers the footprint under that item. So , if you take these illegal structures and dump them, it is pretty easy to understand that whatever is under them will die. This is especially harmful when dumped on seagrass and hard bottom with the numerous hard corals, soft corals, gorgonians, octocorals and sponges, among other attached organisms, that live on this type of substrate. This in turn effect numerous species of fishes and invertebrates that make the Florida Keys so valuable and so important as an ecosystem and as a place to fish and dive. Some studies show that up to 90% of reef species depend on seagrass and hard bottom communities during part of their life cycle. These casitas are not fastened to the bottom so they move frequently in storms and by fishermen so you not only have killed the organisms in the original footprint, you also do the same wherever the casita is moved to to be fished more. So you now have high numbers of illegally caught lobster as well as smothering and killing of the seafloor under the casitas.

      Please know that the funds that are supporting this removal effort are from responsible party in the criminal and civil case from 2008. There are no tax dollars being spent for this work. Not a one.
      Sean Meehan

  3. Hello Hiram,
    Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and share your thoughts. First thing is that you are correct about the term ‘traps”. They are lobster aggregating devices but I think most people can better understand a more general term like trap. You being more familiar with fishing techniques can see the difference. Hopefully the provided photos will help people understand that these are not trapping structures but simply function to aggregate unusually high numbers of spiny lobster for harvest.
    Second, you are correct in that they are placed on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Keys. This is done for a number of reasons: a) the lobster pass from north to south on their way to the reefs to reproduce. Casita fisherman know this and can make large number harvests of lobsters at the beginning of the season. There is very little amount of natural habitat in this area of the Gulf so that lobster will find and stay in these casitas until they are illegally harvested or continue their migration though the Keys to the reef tract. The season for casitas only lasts for a few weeks in July and August and starts to decline in September. b) The water in this area is usually pretty murky so that people driving in their boats cannot see the bottom and cannot see these structures so they usually remain secret only to those who placed them or stumbled across them while diving. c) Thirdly, this area is one of the least visited by boaters and fishermen and divers so it is the best place to conduct this illegal activity while keep the chances of being seen as low as possible.
    Casitas offer a safe place for lobster to dwell during the day but the high numbers in close proximity to one another can potentially increase the chance of disease transmission. This concentrated behavior is not natural to this area of the keys and is an artificially man made condition. One sick lobster can now infect many more lobster than normal due to these illegal structures.

    There has been no recorded presence of juvenile lobster in these habitats. Juvenile lobster are in fact solitary and do not like to be around other lobster. All lobsters recorded in casitas are adult lobster at legal or near legal size. There is an ontogenetic shift from solitary to communal as the lobster gets older.
    My understand for trap placement is that trap fishermen do not like to place on corals because 1) it can harm the corals which are vital to the health and function of the ecosystem and 2) it is easy to get trap caught on the hard bottom and no fisherman wants to lose their gear.
    I applaud your student research into these structures. There is not much data on the impacts of these devices and we really need to know more before we can understand their overall impact. Other countries like Mexico, the Bahamas, and recently Turks and Caicos, are implementing this gear type and licensing fishermen to use it in their waters, in addition to Cuba. A few papers have been published on those fisheries. However, they are closely regulated and licensed and fishermen must adhere to the laws of each nation. In fact, some places require the casita be removed after being fished knowing the damage they can do to the seafloor.

    The bottom line is that right now, each and every casita in the waters of the United States and the State of Florida is illegal and needs to be removed. It is also illegal to harvest lobster from casitas or any other un-permitted structure.
    Thank you again for taking the time to respond.
    Sean Meehan

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