Step 3: The Exporters

Fast Facts:

  • The majority of California spiny lobster is flown live to the Chinese market.

The Exporters

This was supposed to be an article about the large seafood exporting companies in the Los Angeles area. However, things didn’t go as planned. I spent months trying to email and call these exporters to get them to tell me about what they do and where they send their lobsters. I was either told I needed to talk to someone who wasn’t at the office at the time, or ignored. One person, supposedly the guy in charge of all lobster business, finally emailed me back with an incredibly vague response about how they are a wholesaler and his “guess with where the lobsters may go is other wholesalers, markets, restaurants and export”. He then never responded again when I tried to press for more specifics. On top of this, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife does not collect export statistics for the California spiny lobster. This is a huge gap within the supply chain and our quest for traceability.  In order for this fishery to be truly traceable, information on where the lobsters go after they are sold to the exporters should be made available. Don’t worry though, despite this, the story continues…

Due to this gap, I am left to speculate, based on conversations with other members of the California spiny lobster industry, about where the lobsters go. We know that in 2014 California fishermen landed about 951 thousand pounds of California spiny lobster. I believe that the majority of this, we are guessing between 95-99 percent is shipped abroad to the Chinese market. The majority are shipped live, though some may be frozen. Because they are shipping a live animal, it is important that it gets there as soon as possible therefore, the lobsters are flown on airplanes vs. going on cargo ships. Once the lobsters land in China, Chinese companies pay large import taxes to bring the lobsters into the country. Chinese wholesalers then distribute the lobster to retail and restaurant markets where it reaches the consumer.

Check out the packing process!

Video from Oscar Rodriguez

Live exports of seafood to mainland China are subject to a number of barriers, including large import taxes. Therefore, it is not uncommon for lobsters to be first sent to third party countries before being delivered in China. The Chinese Market refers to exports to China as well as to these third party countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam. There are rumors within the industry that lobsters sent to these third party countries are actually later smuggled into China to avoid the import taxes. In 2012 Chinese Customs even implemented anti-smuggling campaigns to try to address the issue. 

While I have heard that lobsters are typically smuggled in much larger quantities and most likely in a more secretive manner, this is an entertaining article, complete with video, of two women attempting to smuggle lobsters in their suitcase. In case you were ever considering it, this is not the way to pack a lobster.

We do not believe that any lobster gets shipped back to the United States as market squid does. In order for spiny lobster to get shipped back, there would have to be a market for it. If U.S. customers are not willing to pay the large price tags to buy California lobsters the first time, it is doubtful that they would then pay an even higher price for a lobster that has made a roundtrip journey across the Pacific. On top of this, two trips in a box across the Pacific is asking a lot for a lobster and survival rates would certainly decline. 

Stay tuned for the next article where I talk about demand for spiny lobster in China.