Before 8 am on a nippy October Sunday morning, a line of fans extended more than a quarter-mile from the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market almost to the USS Midway. They came bundled and masked up with coolers and bags. They were ready, waiting.
Ready for what, you might ask?
To buy bugs.
That’s right. Bugs. Or more eloquently put—the California Spiny Lobster.
Hard to believe, but October 11 was San Diego’s first-ever Lobsterfest, put on by the San Diego Fisherman’s Working Group with the aid of Stephanie Parker of Epicurean San Diego and a slew of volunteers.
Crowds couldn’t get enough of ‘em. While eight fisher-families hawked their lobsters from individual stands, bug-lovers collected recipe cards from each table, dawned Lobsterfest T-shirts, ate Ginataan Ulang (a Filipino-style coconut curry lobster prepared by chef Phillip Esteban’s Craft Meals Catering), and shelled out money for live bugs.
Some newbies asked, “Where’re the claws?”
A fisherman would explain something like this: “Spiny Lobster don’t have claws. Instead, they escape predators with a powerful thrust from their more muscular tail. These tales are larger in proportion to their body when compared to Maine lobsters, and they also stand up to higher heat, which is why they taste so good grilled, with that characteristic snap of sweetly charred outer layer and a delicately sweet and nutty interior. Want one or two?”
They wanted them. That’s for sure. Every fisherman sold out of their lobster within hours. By all accounts, Lobsterfest was a complete success. And yet, this local comeback was all due to unforeseen forces, and because of those, it may be short-lived.
Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years. –LL Cool J
Spiny Lobster isn’t exactly making a comeback, though. For all the hubbub about buying local and keeping money and jobs in the local economy (something that many Americans do with varied success due to a limited budget), at the end of the day, most Americans are more concerned with price. And prices, before last year, had been at all-time highs, whereas the price for Maine Lobster was less than half. Simply put—outside demand and a cheaper alternative made local lobsters hard to justify.
It’s been well documented, even occurring in national outlets like Vice, that in the recent decade, over 95% of California lobster went mostly to China and Taiwan.
One reason? Symbolism.
“They’re more red. Red is very lucky,” says Dan Major of F/V Plan B.
In fact, even the claws of the Maine lobster symbolize something.
“The last thing you want at a wedding is to have any sort of symbolism around a cut,” says Dave Rudie of Catalina Offshore Products, a seafood wholesaler.
They’re also familiar because they look just like Chinese lobster.
Due to all these reasons, pre-covid demand soared. Fishermen, even those that would prefer to sell locally, couldn’t say no. The local market suffered.
“I saw shipping invoices as high as $50 a pound! Just Insane!” Major shares. “China and wholesalers were paying so much compared to domestic. The mongers would throw so much money at you, you couldn’t say no.”
Then, just last year, the trade war with China depressed prices, and then the pandemic hit.
“The tail end of last season saw a bottoming out of prices, and many fishermen feared the opening of this commercial season, when they catch the most lobster, would be no different,” Rudie says.
These forces created the perfect storm, and the fishermen concentrated on selling local once more. Although some fishermen, like Dan Major, always sold exclusively local.
Prices didn’t open at around the $7 a pound they were all fearing, though. Prices opened at about double. This has some fishermen reconsidering their decisions, again.
“It’s a catch-22,” says Johnny Glawson of F/V Nicole Ann while he, his wife, and daughter set up his stand and an oxygenated tank, full of live bugs. “I don’t think we want to leave local but Asia pays more.”
“I could have sold to a truck last night and not have done all this work, but staying local helps in the long run,” he adds.
Selling at the market, engaging with the public, and social media all take extra work. Selling to a wholesaler, by comparison, is easy. They just need to show up with vans and buy the catch. At the end of last season, they didn’t.
And that may be the key to it all. It just takes a little more work, a little more flexibility. In uncertain times, it helps to be able to pivot. Everyone can do their part. Buy more local, sell more local—and build relationships. Offer discounts to repeat customers. Maybe if this happens we can keep some lobster local?
Maybe. Demand is pushing lobster prices higher again and at some point, restaurants will switch back to Maine lobsters or just stop selling. “Cost can fluctuate a lot each year and each week. Customers sometimes have a ‘sticker shock’ when they see lobster on a menu for $50–60, but they are definitely worth it,” says award winning chef Jojo Ruiz of Serẽa and Lionfish. However, at some point, they won’t be.
That’s just on the demand end of things. Fishermen are telling me their catch seems low and because of covid, recreational lobster fishing has exploded, further subtracting from the available catch to the commercial fishery.
“People are learning, getting good at it,” says Major. “The majority of the biomass for this year is definitely harvested from the recreational side.” What that meant is that if fishermen cannot compete on volume, “all we can hope for is price. It’s the only thing that can save us.”