Step 2: The Buyers

Interviews with Rob Case from Live Deal and Dave Rudie and Tommy Gomes from Catalina Offshore Products

Fast Facts:

  • Almost all the lobsters are sold live
  • The majority are sold to large seafood exporters in Los Angeles

Meet the Buyers:

Live Deal is a family run business out of Oceanside California that buys California spiny lobster from local fishermen and also sells bait. Rob Case, the owner, started the business in 1993 and continues to run it with the help of his wife and daughter. Rob is also a local urchin diver.

Tommy Gomes from Catalina Offshore Products

Catalina Offshore Products was started by Dave Rudie almost 40 years ago as a small urchin business. It is now one of the one of the region’s premier seafood purveyors and one of the largest seafood import and export companies in California. In addition to uni (sea urchin), Catalina Offshore Products sells a wide variety of fresh, frozen, and sushi grade seafood mostly sourced from Southern California and Baja California. The business includes a processing facility, Seafood Education and Nutrition Center, and seafood market. I talked with Dave Rudie, the owner and Tommy Gomes, the fishmonger.

The Process:

Live Deal:

October to March, Rob Case starts his day driving his truck outfitted with a large blue fish tank in the back, down to the docks to buy California spiny lobster direct from local fishermen, like John Law. Rob has 8-10 guys that he makes daily trips (during the season) to buy lobsters from. By being the middleman between the fishermen and the exporters, Rob allows the fishermen to focus on what they do best, fishing. He also sells the fishermen salmon heads and mackerel that they use as bait in their traps. The exchange is fairly quick. Lobsters are weighed and he offers them a price set by the market. In the beginning of the season the price starts fairly low and increase as the season goes on and catches are lower. This season the price ranged from $16/lb to $25/lb.

On opening day, Rob will buy as much as 5,000 pounds of lobster. As the season progresses, he continues to make his daily trips to the docks to meet the fishermen, however he may only return home with 1,000 pounds. While Rob makes his stops at the different docks, his lobsters are kept comfortable in the large blue tank in the back. The tank is filled with seawater kept at a cool 50 degrees and aerated.

Once home in Oceanside, Rob sells his lobsters to big seafood exporters like SeaWin International. SeaWin sends a truck down to Oceanside to meet Rob and bring the lobsters back to their facilities in Los Angeles, California. 

Catalina Offshore Products:

Catalina Offshore Products buys their lobsters direct from 10-12 local fishermen including David Haworth. The fishermen bring their lobsters directly to Catalina Offshore Products where the lobsters are weighed and the fishermen are paid based on the current market price. Catalina Offshore Products then turns around and sells the lobsters to several groups of consumers.

Holding tank at Catalina Offshore Products

Holding tank at Catalina Offshore Products

The majority of their lobsters (they estimate about 95 percent) are sold to big seafood exporters like SeaWin International in Los Angeles. Those lobsters are sent abroad primarily to Chinese markets. This is not unusual. It is estimated that almost all (as much as 99 percent) of the lobster caught in California ends up in China. Catalina Offshore Products does not ship any lobsters direct to China because they say it is too risky and they don’t want to have to deal with chasing money down in China. They do however, pack them and send them to the airport where a US based company such as SeaWin, pays them for their lobsters. The lobsters are shipped live and therefore have to be packed very carefully so that they when they arrive in China they are still alive. Prior to shipping, Catalina OP holds their lobsters in tanks with water around 50 degrees. This slows down the lobster’s metabolisms and make them kind of groggy/sleepy. They are then packed into Styrofoam boxes filled with wood straw and lined up like sardines. The woodstraw catches on their legs, which causes them to hold still for their long journey. A piece of blank damp newspaper goes on top and gel ice is placed on top of that, to keep them cool. The lid to the box is added and they are taped up and ready to be shipped to China.

Lobsters in a shipping box. 

Photo credit: Catalina Offshore Products

The rest of the lobsters that Catalina Offshore Products sells (probably around 5 percent) stays in the United States. Some are sold directly to consumers or local restaurants through their seafood market. The rest are shipped domestically to restaurants. The restaurants tend to be high end ‘white table cloth’ places like the famous French Laundry in Napa Valley. In San Diego, it is places like the Marine Room, Oceanaire, and La Valencia.

 

Stay tuned for the next step…the exporters.

Side story from Dave and Tommy:

Why aren’t more California restaurants or markets selling local California spiny lobster?

The answer is simple. People can’t afford it. Dave Rudie and Tommy Gomes of Catalina Offshore explained it to me. “It’s the whole price thing. I mean a pound and a quarter lobster, standard legal size, is going to run you 50 plus dollars at a restaurant, or more. Typically, restaurants like to keep their food costs down to 25% so think about the lobster that’s a 1 ¼ lbs. I paid the fishermen $20/lb. I need to mark it up a little bit and add shipping. So say the restaurant buys it for $25/lb. That’s a $30 lobster.  If he [the restaurant] wants to do a standard restaurant markup, he has to sell it for over $100. But who wants to pay $100 for one lobster? Not many people. So they end up working at a lower margin. They sell it for $50-60 and there are still not that many people who want to pay that much for dinner. Maybe people in some high-end places like the French Laundry and maybe in a few markets in San Francisco and New York. The fishermen are happy that they get higher prices but they really only have one market now and that’s China.”

For more on restaurant markups