Shelling out for California lobster

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Some of the spiny California lobster ready to be purchased and shipped to China. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why it’s getting harder and harder to afford local California lobster, look no further than the exploding middle class in China. Its demand for the red spiny creature over the past decade or so has driven market value of spiny lobster through the roof, leaving locals hard pressed to even find it in restaurants or farmers’ markets. And those that do are paying an arm and a leg for it.

At the close of California’s 2013-2014 lobster fishing season this past week, the boat price for lobster (the price paid directly to fisherman) was at its highest to date — $24 per pound. As a result, it’s estimated the state’s 200 commercially licensed lobstermen are unloading 99 percent of their catch to buyers who then truck it to Los Angeles, where it is then packaged up and shipped to China.

Santa Barbara fisherman Sam Shrout shows off his freshly caught live lobster.

Certainly the fisherman, such as Santa Barbara’s Sam Shrout, aren’t complaining. “It’s been a good season due to the price,” says Shrout. “We’ve been in a cold water cycle over the past few years, so our catch is definitely low, and the way I see it it’s money in the bank. All the lobsters I didn’t catch are going to be there next year, and they’re just going to be bigger.”

Shrout sets up a one-man market at the Santa Barbara harbor every Saturday morning year round to sell his crab, rock fish, mollusks, etc., but during lobster season, he will take special orders ahead of time and set aside some of the valuable crustaceans for the public. That is by far the cheapest way to get local lobster, or else one is left to pay retail at the Santa Barbara Fish Market, which currently prices them for $37.95 per pound.

Patrons take a gander at Sam Shrout’s freshly caught live lobster. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Another option is restaurants, but there again, a 1.3 pound lobster dinner plate at the Santa Barbara Fishouse will run you about $55, a price the owner, Adam White, says should actually be higher. “That’s a 50 percent food cost,” says White. With that kind of margin in the restaurant business, he adds, “You’re not going to be around long.”

Other restaurants in town may carry local lobster on special occasions, particularly during the holidays, but White is committed to always offering it during the season. Because it’s a high ticket item and they don’t sell but a handful a night (far less than in past years), the low profit margin doesn’t hurt the business too badly.

Maine lobster on sale in Santa Barbara. Photos by Karen Pelland. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Maine lobster, on the other hand, can be found in many middle-to-upper scale eateries in town for about half the price. And although the Chinese do import a great deal of lobster from the North Atlantic region, they don’t necessarily crave it, and they certainly don’t pay as much for it. Their tastes seem to veer more towards the sweeter meat of spiny lobster, and they supposedly don’t like the big claws or the lower meat yield of what one lobster wholesaler in Maine called “the hamburger of lobster”.

Commercial fisherman don’t have an easy life, and things don’t go their way more often than they do, so the relatively small population of California lobstermen have no problem sending this local asset overseas. Sam Shrout includes himself in this bunch, but his willingness to commune with the public and, as he puts it, “mess with people”, makes him a local treasure every Saturday morning down at the Santa Barbara harbor, especially during lobster season. But if you want some of that lobster, you better call ahead. Or, take a trip to China.