Spiny Lobsters: Key to the Kelp

Today’s blogger is Dana Roeber Murray, a marine and coastal scientist at Heal the Bay

As a recreational and scientific diver, I’ve seen the California spiny lobster ‑ an ecologically important species in our local kelp forests, as well as an important commercial and recreational fishery – in varying population densities along our coastline and out at the Channel Islands.

A predatory species that can be found hiding in dens under rock ledges, lobsters are an important key to maintaining marine biodiversity in our local waters because they prey upon kelp-consuming species such as sea urchins. This in turn helps to balance species abundance in kelp forest ecosystems. In essence, spiny lobster help to provide a stable ecosystem for other species that live in and rely on kelp for food and habitat.

I’ve been diving in “urchin barrens” along our coast and on the backside on Anacapa Island where spiny lobster are hard to come by – places where kelp forests have been completely consumed by urchins, leading to ecosystems that are dominated by just a few species like purple urchins and brittle stars.

To find out more about the future sustainability of our local lobsters, I attended a recent public meeting focused on managing California’s spiny lobster fishery. The California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) is developing a Fishery Management Plan that aims to sustain their populations for years to come.

The planning process has already begun via series of public meetings, the first of which I attended as Heal the Bay’s marine and coastal scientist, along with two Science & Policy interns. Katja Borowski, Heal the Bay intern and Santa Monica College student, observed that “it was a very civilized exchange of thoughts and ideas between groups with different interests and needs, and it seemed that while everyone clearly tried to pursue their ideas, the welfare of the spiny lobster was high on everybody’s agenda.”

This plan is required under the Marine Life Management Act, and will be developed using the best scientific data available on spiny lobster natural history, recreational and commercial fishery data, and the effects lobster fisheries have on marine ecosystems. In addition to a series of public meetings and public reviews of the planning process, the DFG will be putting together a Lobster Advisory Committee made up of volunteers including recreational fishermen, marine scientists, government, commercial fishermen, NGOs and non-consumptive, recreational users.

This committee will meet regularly and have a major role in the planning process. California’s Ocean Protection Council has provided a grant to support the lobster fishery management planning process and the DFG should have a fishery management plan for California spiny lobster finished by 2015.

Find out more about how you can help improve our marine ecosystems, join Heal the Bay’s MPA Watch program.