The Coast News Group
Lobstermen Wayne Campbell (right) and Scott Kirby look over the lobsters they caught earlier in the day. Campbell said the price of lobster falling in San Diego County is another difficulty he’ll have to contend with this season. Photo by Jared Whitlock

Trend of local lobsters going to other countries reverses course

Lobstermen, restaurants impacted by the sea change  

OCEANSIDE —Wayne Campbell’s boat, the Sonya C, ambled into the Oceanside Harbor near sunset. While securing his boat to the dock, Campbell was happy to report a larger than expected haul of spiny lobsters. But there was bad news to go along with the good.The lobsters didn’t fetch as much as they would have last season.

Lobster prices for San Diego County from 2000 to 2011. Prices so far this year are hovering around $12 to $13. Source: Doug Neilson, environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game

Last year in San Diego County, lobster was being sold for around $18 a pound. Now they’re going for about $12 to $13, the first drop in eight years. It’s cause for celebration for many consumers and restaurants that were previously priced out of the local lobster market.

Lobstermen like Campbell, however, say the decline is piling onto a perfect storm that hit earlier this year.

“My catch is down; my income is down,” Campbell said. “Any fishermen in Oceanside will probably say the same thing. This industry is getting tougher and tougher.”

Among the fishermen’s woes: New marine protected areas that went into effect in January across San Diego. The marine protected areas are designed to replenish fisheries over time, but less territory means fewer catches this season.

Further, Campbell said a large sand replenishment project that kicked off in September has destroyed some traps and could hurt fishermen’s prospects by displacing the lobster. The price of local lobster falling is yet another damper on his business, he said.

“We knew we had a hard season ahead,” said Campbell, referring to the new marine protected areas he believes are unnecessary. “But the price of lobster coming down was unexpected — it hurts.”

Lobster hovered around $7 a pound for the first half of the 2000s. But about five years ago, the price shot up thanks to foreign markets, particularly China, buying more lobster, according to Dave Rudie, owner of Catalina Offshore Products.

“China really likes our lobster,” Rudie said. “It’s especially popular for weddings there.”

China’s economy has slowed down in the last year, and so has the country’s appetite for lobster, Rudie said. But decreased demand isn’t the only reason the price of local lobster has fallen.

The Chinese government is cracking down on lobster importers that weren’t paying enough, or the appropriate taxes, according to Kristine Barsky, senior marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. With fewer Chinese importers, more lobster is staying in San Diego.

“The details are murky — that’s what we know so far,” Barsky said.

“It is difficult to predict, but I expect the price to stabilize over the near future,” she added.

Many fishermen that rely on lobster catches are understandably frustrated by the price dropping. Lobster is the most valuable species for the local fishing industry, according to a San Diego Association of Government’s environmental impact study from several years ago.

On the flip side, consumers and restaurants have benefited so far this lobster season, which began in late September and will end in March.

The Fish Market was one of the few restaurants that kept local lobster on its menu once prices spiked, said Darren Gorski, a market manager who buys supplies for the Fish Market.

“(Local) lobster was a loss leader for us,” Gorski said. “But this season (local) lobster is more affordable to buy.”

Trey Foshee, executive partner and chef at George’s at the Cove, said the restaurant discontinued a special tasting menu for local lobster several years ago when prices for the catch began climbing. Meanwhile, lobster was imported from elsewhere.

“I would look out the window of the restaurant and see lobster fishing,” Foshee said, adding that guests’ plates had East Coast lobster, which is cheaper due to a more robust fishing area in that region.

It was “odd” and “frustrating” at the same time to have lobster from nearly 3,000 miles away, Foshee said.

However, Foshee has resumed the local lobster menu because prices have come down. He hopes to continue serving the local bounty, noting that many guests prefer San Diego lobster to other markets because it’s “meatier” and “more dense.”

Ultimately, because of more competition from global markets, San Diego restaurant goers and consumers have to be willing to pay a little more for local lobster, he said.

“This is a great local resource and your money stays within the county,” Foshee said.