Side Story: A Bit of History

The history of the California spiny lobster industry, in San Diego, according to John Law (San Diego commercial fisherman)

While most of the California spiny lobster caught nowadays is shipped alive to the Chinese market, this was not always the case.  Before the 1990s, the market in Southern California was not a live lobster market and most of the lobster stayed locally.

Lobsters were brought in live by local fishermen and went straight to one of the local processing companies. In San Diego, one of the major companies was Ghio’s Seafood, who was also owner of the of Anthony’s Fish Grotto, a local restaurant chain. Between Ghio’s and a few other local processors, they bought all of the lobster from the local fishermen. “You walked in and everything went onto the scale and then straight into a big cooker, then into the chiller.” After processing, the lobster was distributed to local seafood restaurants such as Anthony’s. According to John, “nothing was live, and nothing was exported.”

An old menu from Anthony's Fish Grotto Circa 1967

Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Prices were also significantly lower than they are now. Fishermen were getting less than $5/lb for their lobsters, making a lobster dinner much more affordable for the average consumer. Then, in 1995 the average price the fishermen received jumped up to over $5/lb. John attributes this price jump to an increased demand for live California lobster from Japan and Taiwan. With increased prices due to increased demand abroad, fishermen started making more money. It was at this time, that John joined the fishery. Prices continued to increase and in 1997 “the price really ran up and went to $7/lb. Everyone was ecstatic." As the season progressed, the price continued to increase, first to $8/lb then $10/lb.

Then disaster struck, around 1998/1999 demand for lobster from Japan dropped off due to economic issues. On top of this, 1998 was also an el Nino year, causing warmer waters to negatively impact lobster populations. “We [the fishermen] really suffered, because we had extremely poor production and no price.” Fishermen who had invested in new gear to enter a growing fishery were now making an average of less then $4/lb by the 1999 season. 

By 2000, there were efforts to reestablish domestic markets in an attempt to fill the void left by Japan. However, China quickly stepped in. “Once China got involved, things rebounded pretty quickly." 

China became the main importer of California spiny lobster and prices went up $13/lb and continued to progress to more than $20/lb. This is pretty much where we are today. According to John, now what’s happened is that domestic use of spiny lobster has become virtually zero or just a specialty item and the tanks that used to hold spiny lobster now hold American lobster and dungenous crab. The rest is sent over to China.