San Diego’s famous spiny lobsters are disappearing from…San Diego.
It’s partially a simple case of supply and demand. Lobster lovers in other markets—from L.A. to China—have a bigger demand, and they’re willing to pay for it.
“Our home consumer is getting priced out,” explains Catalina Offshore Products fishmonger Tommy Gomes. “A couple years ago, lobsters were $7 per pound. Now it’s $17 to $19. I’ve never seen such high prices.”
America’s high sustainability standards also drive up prices. Fishing is limited to specified areas, during specified months. Quotas are tight. Spiny lobster can only be harvested using one trap on one fishing line. “In some parts of the world,” says Paddy Glennon, vice president of sales at Santa Monica Seafood, “you can find 100 traps on one line across three miles.”
The goal of such restrictions—long-term survival of a crucial food source—is both admirable and necessary.
Lobster isn’t the first local delicacy to hop a red-eye out of San Diego.
“San Diego used to be the tuna capital of the world, but the exodus of the tuna fleet occurred when it became dolphin safe,” says American Tuna’s Natalie Webster. “Now 84 percent of the fish the U.S. consumes is imported; we can’t compete with tuna processed in Thailand or third-world countries since we don’t pay people 25 cents a day.”
Ultimately, the consumer will decide whether keeping local food in town is worth the cost. It’s not an easy sell, especially to Americans, who only spend 9.8 percent of their income on food—the lowest, globally.
“We are a culture that relishes cheap products, including seafood,” says Gomes. “To save money, Americans are eating third-world frozen fish with phosphates and glazed with chemicals.”