Step 1: The Fishermen

Interviews with John Law and David Haworth, San Diego commercial fishermen

Fast Facts:

  • California spiny lobster is caught using baited wire traps.
  •  In addition to lobster, many of the fishermen participate in other fisheries.

 Meet the Fishermen:

John Law

Photo Credit: John Law

 John Law is a native San Diegian with 38 years of fishing experience. He owns two commercial fishing boats that target lobster, crab, and a variety of fishes (rockfish, sheephead, cabezon, halibut, ling cod, shark, white sea bass, and several others), predominantly using trap and hook and line methods.  John has been fishing for CA spiny lobster since 1996 and has seen the industry change dramatically in that time. 

David Haworth

Photo Credit: David Haworth

David Haworth is a second generation San Diego fisherman with 40 years of fishing experience. He owns four commercial fishing vessels that target tuna, lobster, swordfish, sardine, and squid. He is on the Pacific Fishery Management Council Advisory Body as a Coastal Pelagic Species Advisory Subpanel (CPSAS) member. David and his son both fish for CA spiny lobster. You may recognize David, his son, and his son’s dog, Luna, from the news. Luna is a young german sheppard/ husky mix who was lost at sea while lobstering at San Clemente Island. Presumed dead, the family was relieved 5 weeks later she was found by the navy, safe and returned home. 

Fishing for California Spiny Lobster:

A typical day spent lobster-fishing starts before sunrise for the average San Diego commercial lobster fisherman.  John Law has been lobster fishing in San Diego since 1996. His day starts at the dock with fueling up the boat. Depending on the size of the vessel, this may need to be done before every trip. The next step is loading up boxes of bait and checking the boat to make sure everything is ready. John baits his traps with salmon heads that are bought in bulk from the Pacific Northwest.

While still at dock, the weather is checked and the day is choreographed based on conditions such as winds, currents, or potential storms. If the weather is bad, a captain may choose to go service his farther traps first and work his way back towards home. Once out in the open ocean, John reassesses the conditions and adjusts the plan if necessary.

The majority of boats have at least two people, one person driving the boat and pulling the traps and the crew member servicing the traps. However, John Law fishes alone, unless it is the first week of the season when the workload is heavy enough to warrant an extra hand. He fishes 300 traps on a small 25-foot boat that he keeps in Mission Bay. John and other fishermen with coastal skiffs in the 18-27 foot range, typically fish pretty close to shore. (However, there are guys who fish in larger boats up to around 45 feet and they can chose to fish coastal or venture further offshore to the islands.) It takes John and his crew about 4-5 days to set all the traps when the season starts. Once set, he is required by law to service his traps at least every 96 hours however, if his traps are in shallower water, around 30 feet, he generally services them every 1-2 days. To service the traps, John must position the boat to work against the elements (wind or currents) so that he doesn’t drift over the buoy. He then uses his gaff (a long pole with a hook on the end) to grab the buoy that is attached to a line connected to his trap. Once hooked, he uses a winch to pull the trap up to the rail where it is quickly assessed then opened. Once opened, the catch is sorted and the lobsters are measured using a gauge to make sure they are of legal size (carapace length 3 ¼ inches). Small lobsters and other incidentally caught species are returned back into the ocean alive. Once the trap is emptied, the bait bag is reloaded, all the trap doors are closed, and the trap is returned back into the water. He then moves on to the next trap. How long he spends out for a day varies depending on factors such as weather and how full his traps are. Some days he will work late into the afternoon/evening, other days he is done by 1pm.

John is not only a lobster fisherman.  John and about 50 percent of the other San Diegian lobster fishermen are considered multispecies/mulitpermit fishermen. They fish whatever is available throughout the year. “I don’t lock myself in on one thing. I just follow the fish, follow the trend, and follow the dollars.” This year was not a great year for local lobster fishermen, probably due to the weird conditions created by El Nino. Therefore, John decided to pull his traps early. He explained that he made the decision based on assessing risk vs. gain. According to John, he had virtually all his fishing equipment in the water and he hadn’t lost any traps yet but he also wasn’t catching enough to make it worth risking it. He decided to quit, before he lost traps that he would have to spend money to replace the next season. 

“I don’t lock myself in on one thing. I just follow the fish, follow the trend, and follow the dollars.”
— John Law, San Diego Commercial Fishermen

David Haworth is another San Diego lobster fisherman. Even though it wasn’t a great season, David and his son continued to stick the season out. Like John Law, David is also a multipermit fisherman. He owns four commercial fishing vessels that target tuna, lobster, swordfish, sardine, and squid. Unfortunately, this season has been pretty terrible for squid and the sardine fishery was closed down earlier this year resulting in David having to rely more on his other catches to support his boats and crew. “Typically lobster is a small part of what we catch but this year the squid was so slow, that I was actually using my lobster money to pay for my squid boat.” David explained that the catch fluctuates every season and by diversifying his catch, it allows him to adapt to those fluctuations. When his squid catch was good, it actually paid for his lobster boat and all his traps.  With this squid season being so bad, the lobster money is helping cover slip fees (money that pays for dock space) and some other expenses, like crew wages, but not 100 percent. Lobster typically brings in much less money than squid and therefore his crew wages are down this year.

To make up for a bad season, David and his son have also expanded their lobstering grounds this season. Typically they lobster locally between Point Loma and La Jolla or between the Mexican border and La Jolla when they need to. However, when I talked to David at the end of January (past the peak of the season), lobster had become more scarce and David’s son had just returned from his first trip to San Clemente Island. David and his son fish 600 traps and have a larger boat (around 45 feet long) allowing them to make those further excursions out to the San Clemente Island. 

Selling California Spiny Lobster:

David Hayworth typically sells his lobster to Catalina Offshore Products, a local San Diego seafood market. The lobsters are sold live and prices vary throughout the season. Prices are generally lower at the start of the season and go up as the season progresses. This season, prices started at about $16/lb. and went up to about $25/lb. David also occasionally sells his lobsters at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, a local fisherman’s market where the public can buy seafood direct from the fishermen. In the beginning of the season, he had lobsters at his stand. Later in the season, people were able to place advanced orders online and he would have them ready Saturday morning at the market, for them to pick up.

John Law sells his lobsters to Live Deal, a local buyer based out of Oceanside. Live Deal comes down to San Diego to pick up John’s lobsters at his dock in Mission Bay. 

The Next Step:

Stay tuned for our next article where we talk with Catalina Offshore Products and Live Deal.