The Coast News Group
A fisherman holds lobster caught off the coast of Oceanside. The price of lobster is at unheard of levels. As a result, local restaurants have been priced out of the market. Photo by Jared Whitlock
Arts & Entertainment

Local lobster prices continue on a roller coaster ride

Increasing demand from China causes restaurants to feel the pinch of the record high  

COAST CITIES — At Las Olas in Cardiff, shrimp, fish and scallops are on the menu. But one fare has been conspicuously absent from diners’ plates since December: local lobster.

“We had to cut it; we just couldn’t justify serving it once it got so expensive,” said Carson Wise, a manager at Las Olas, a restaurant that’s served local lobster from October to March in the past.

The story is the same in restaurants across San Diego. Lobster was going for $12 per pound — a relatively affordable rate for restaurants and grocery stores — at the start of the season in the fall. Then, the price shot up to $20 in late December, and didn’t stop rising. Now, lobster is fetching around $24 a pound, the highest price ever for local lobster.

George’s at the Cove also had to scrap serving local lobster a few months ago, said Trey Foshee, executive partner and chef.

“Even if prices go down again, I worry restaurants will forget about local lobster,” Foshee said. “Chefs are creatures of habit.”

Like other restaurants, George’s offers East Coast lobster, which is one-third of the cost, because the bounty is more plentiful in that region. The irony of shipping in Maine lobster isn’t lost on Foshee. He sees lobster traps bobbing up and down from the restaurant’s windows every day.

“Supporting local lobster is a very worthy cause — just hard to do when it’s so exorbitant,” Foshee said.

It’s difficult to say if the price will stay this high, said Dave Rudie, owner of Catalina Offshore Products in San Diego. The lobster market has never been so volatile.

“I’ve heard the current price is unsustainable,” Rudie said. “But I can’t say what will happen.

A fisherman places a freshly caught lobster into a holding tank. Photo by Jared Whitlock

“Lobster prices didn’t change much a decade ago,” Rudie added. “The decline and quick rise this year are unprecedented.”

For the first half of the 2000s lobster hovered around $7 a pound. Around 2005, the price started slowly climbing, reaching $18 a pound last year. That’s why fans of local lobster cheered when this year’s season opened with a lower price, the first drop in eight years. Of course, they were less thrilled with the meteoric rise in the price.

Those in the lobster industry can’t say with complete certainty why the price is fluctuating so much. But what’s clear is China is driving the market.

China’s buying power has increased over the years, and so has the country’s demand for San Diego lobster. They prefer the look of our lobster to other varieties for cultural reasons. Rudie noted, it’s a staple for weddings there.

“Last year (the price) started high because before the Year of the Dragon many couples wanted to get married and have Dragon babies,” Rudie said. “This year, before the Year of the Snake, did not have that demand.”

Although China’s appetite for lobster was weak at the beginning of the season in October, production sharply declined in San Diego in November, and couldn’t keep up with growing demand. Another factor likely sent prices sky high: Australia and Baja Mexico had poor lobster harvests.

“China gets most of its lobster from Mexico,” Rudie said. “Since Mexico had a poor season, they relied more on San Diego than they normally would.”

Also, China’s appetite for lobster was probably lower at the onset of this season, because its government cracked down on lobster importers who weren’t paying enough in taxes.

“It’s kind of a mystery, but what we’re hearing is they had their hand slapped,” said Kristine Barsky, senior marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “And they weren’t importing as much as much for a brief time.”

Lobster is the most valuable species for the local fishing industry, according to a SANDAG study several years ago. Further, San Diego accounts for nearly one-third of the state’s lobster haul, which was valued at almost $8 million in 2009.

The price jump has been a welcome surprise for lobstermen, who thought they were in for a dreadful year. Not only did the season open at $12 a pound, but new marine reserves that ban or limit fishing took effect.

Shad Catarius, a commercial lobsterman in San Diego, said that his catch is down quite a bit compared to previous years. That’s largely due to the new marine reserves closing off territory he used to fish in. But the swelling lobster price has helped make up the lost income. He’s not sure the price will remain high.

“This year has seen a lot of changes,” Catarius said.