When considering where to buy this local delicacy, know that a lifetime of knowledge goes into trapping lobsters for this San Diego fishing family, and being able to sell seafood directly to consumers helps keep them afloat
“Things are good,” Captain Johnny Glawson says from behind his market stall with his wife Nicole at his side. An unassuming banner reading “F/V Nicole Anne, Captain Johnny G.” in blue letters over white behind them.
Most Saturdays, their table at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is covered with rows and rows of various and multicolored whole fish, incredibly local and fresh. When available, live spiny lobsters are at their side deep in a cooler of bubbling oxygenated water.
This Sunday is different. Their banner’s behind them but there’s no fish. In fact, they and every other vendor at the market are selling lobster and only lobster. It’s the second annual San Diego Spiny Lobster Festival and lines of eager lobster lovers formed early to celebrate first-of-the-season spiny lobster.
Captain Johnny G. is tall with eyes that seem likely to be more at ease squinting into shimmering sunlit waters than peering at me from behind a sales table. His voice is soft and his inflections hint that he’s always about to crack a sardonic joke. He talks in the efficient manner of someone that’s done something their whole life who doesn’t want to explain, yet again, that a sheepshead is a tasty fish or that spiny lobsters are clawless—but he will—and graciously.
Nicole runs the stand with a wide smile that lights up her face when she talks. They make a good team: Johnny grabs the lobster, Nicole packages them, and engages with the buyers.
In only its second year, Spiny Lobster Fest has proven to be incredibly important for the local fishing economy. Lobster season opened for commercial fishermen just the Wednesday before, right after recreational lobster and Mexico’s commercial opening. San Diego has by far the most lobster permits in California, so competition is fierce, especially since most of the catch is caught and sold early in the season before the lobsters migrate to much deeper waters. Because of this competition and timing, prices start low.
“I’m only doing lobster now because the pressure is so great,” Johnny G. tells me. “There’s like 120 lobster permits [in the state] and 80 of them fish out of San Diego….it’s crazy. I gotta get ‘em before these other guys.”
Traditionally, most of these lobsters were sold to seafood wholesalers for a pittance, then heavily marked up by the time the general local consumer saw them in stores or restaurants if at all, being that most were shipped overseas. The direct-to-consumer model of Spiny Lobster Fest gives fishermen the opportunity to sell lobsters for almost double what wholesalers pay for them. Festival-goers, on the other hand, have the pleasure of buying spiny lobster for relatively cheap, and from independent fishing families like Johnny and Nicole. Plus, there are the relationships formed, recipes traded, Instagram accounts exchanged.
Captain Johnny G.was just 12 when he first went sport fishing, and by 15 he was (ahem) hooked, so much so he would scrub sport boats to get free trips out of them.
This, he tells me, was when he earned the nickname Pinhead. In the fishing world, someone starts as a pinhead, puts their time in for free, then moves up before making captain—a process that can take years. Johnny was a captain by age 18, by 25, he owned his first commercial skiff and lobster license.
“I’ve been fishing for over 35 plus years. I’ve never thought about quitting,” says Johnny. “Fishing is all I know and I’m good at it. I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a living from the sea. It’s a challenging physical job but I love it.”
It is challenging, especially during lobster season.
“The beginning of the season I’m out from sunrise to sunset. After the first month, I’m out about six to eight hours,” he shares. Johnny usually gets up at 4am, kisses his wife Nicole, grabs two travel mugs of coffee and a sandwich, then rolls out. He’s on the water by 5:30am with one or two crew. This year, he’s fishing 280 traps. He started getting ready for this in early August—prepping the boat, making safety inspections, crafting the traps, planning where he will set them.
“Being on the ocean is only part of the work. There are extra hours getting bait, loading bait, loading gear, cleaning the boat, selling the catch, fueling maintenance, and paperwork: logbooks, fish receipts,” he says.
There are also market days. Nicole controls the market days though they both get up early to collect what they are going to sell from the boat, catalog it, transport it to market, set up, sell, and break down.
At Lobster Fest, interacting with customers and answering questions, Johnny seems tired but happy to be there. “I would love to take a day off, but…well, I can’t. It is what it is.”
A regular comes up and asks for three. Johnny dips a blue gloved hand in the water and grabs a lobster, its tail flapping to try and escape, places it in a bin, then grabs another. Nicole weighs them, packages, and charges the customer. At $19/lb, the total comes to $77 dollars, a steal compared to the $30-40/lb they’ll be in a month. The customer pays Nicole, who happily catches up with him for a minute.
Johnny and Nicole can’t say enough good things about their regular customers. They help take the edge of unknowing off, especially in an industry where everything—the catch, the weather, prices, and costs—are variable. “Almost like a subscription,” Nicole says.
“This little pier,” Johnny tells me while looking around at the crowds and the vendors, “I’m transitioning from where I used to sell to a wholesale truck and go home to now where I keep a lot of stuff on the boat, keep it alive, sell them direct to consumer. It works way better.”
This year, the festival sold 2,240 pounds of lobster between nine vendors. A bit under projection compared to last year’s inaugural festival, but still successful. Those fishing for lobster, including Johnny and Nicole, would have had to catch and sell twice that much if their only option was to sell directly to the wholesalers.
Need inspiration for how to best prepare and serve a couple of spiny lobsters? Here's what I did with them.