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.”
Environmental scientist Dr. Jennifer Hofmeister of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says it’s complicated. When asked about counts for the commercial lobster fishery, she tells me, “I haven’t seen much of a difference in early pounds this year...data shows they are on-trend.”
That said, commercial catch counts arrive almost in real-time. Recreational catch counts are murkier because reporting is mostly on an honor system where report cards are submitted at the end of the season. “All you know is sales of recreational report cards show a solid increase this year,” Hofmeister says.
Furthermore, future counts might be lower. “Research suggests peaks in larvae in one year means that 5 to 7 years later there is an increase in the catch,” Hofmeister explains. This can also work in reverse.
California lobster produces more larvae in warm waters. Although it was a hot summer, our waters have been cool and previous years’ counts have seen a slight decline. This year will also be a La Nina year, meaning the Pacific currents bring even colder water from the deep ocean. “Historically lobsters tend to make fewer babies in La Nina years,” Hofmeister adds, “but that would make it 5 to 7 years down the line before we see the effects.”
To recap: there are more recreational permits this year, which means more lobster harvested recreationally and more people fishing for bugs. Many of these people will continue on next season. In addition, these last few years have seen a decline in larvae, with a larger decline projected for this year. That means sometime in the future, maybe next year, overseas demand will return, commercial stocks will be lower, and prices will soar.
In some respects, it may take a little sacrifice from everyone just to keep lobsters local. Prices can be fair to the point where almost everyone leaves happy, without outside pressure. The first Lobsterfest was proof of that. Right now, with restaurants like Serẽa, Lionfish, Wrench and Rodent, Mitch’s Seafood, Sushi Ota, Soichi Sushi, Ironside Fish & Oyster, Hidden Fish Sushi, Water Grill, and many more all serving various spiny lobster specials, it feels like Lobsterfest really didn’t end at all. Let’s hope that it lasts.
For now, if you’re craving California spiny lobster or just want to support the local supply chain, you can find them at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market as weather and stock permits, so keep an eye out. Catalina Offshore Products has them for sale at their retail storefront or consider ordering online. Local third-generation and female-owned Saraspe Seafoods pivoted to an all-delivery model and you can order from their website, get recipes, and have live bugs show up at your door hours later.