No claws for concern: Buy California spiny lobster!

Theresa Talley, California Sea Grant Extension Specialist

September 25, 2020

When most people hear “lobster” they think of the iconic two-clawed crustacean from New England, the American lobster. It’s no wonder that National Lobster Day is today, September 25th, a good 12 days before the commercial California spiny lobster season even opens. Lost in the lobster-fray is this sweet, delicious, clawless West Coast native, which is found from Monterey Bay down well into Mexico. The California commercial fishery focuses mostly on the waters between Santa Barbara and San Diego.

California spiny lobster in a rock crevice. Photo: Kristin Riser, SIO

Why aren’t seafood lovers as familiar with our spiny lobster when many say the meat of the spiny lobster is sweeter and more delicious than the East Coast lobster?  As with most things New England, you may think it’s because the East Coast fishery has been around for longer-- Maine’s first lobster fishery was established in the 1840s. But the California spiny lobster fishery, started in Santa Barbara, has been around almost as long-- since 1874.  The answer, at least in part, may lie in the fact that up to 95% of California’s modern catch has been exported to China where lobster lovers are willing to pay up to $30 US dollars per pound. Too rich for the taste of most Californians. Most spiny lobsters are bought for the Lunar New Year celebrations in China because their bright red, clawless bodies resemble dragons and are thought to be lucky

Two California spiny lobsters facing each other, looking somewhat like dragons, on a white background

Also, as a New England native, I have not seen the personal connections between San Diegans and their lobster as you see in the northeast. American lobster isn’t just a summer food, it is an icon of the season, the place, and even the people. You are connected to the forest-bounded rocky coasts and scenic colonial fishing harbors through lobster… well, and clams too, but that’s for another post.  The scarcity and high price of spiny lobster may be, at least in part, to blame for Californian’s lack of bonding with this snappy, bright decapod, but that may be about to change.

International trade tariffs, pandemics, a changing environment…for these and so many other reasons, the import/export-heavy food system we’ve known is changing. Local sources of food are more important than ever for maintaining our food security and economic stability. While most California spiny lobsters are normally exported, this year’s food system challenges and local need have inspired San Diego commercial lobstermen to band together and make this delicious seasonal specialty accessible to our community.  

To help our California spiny lobster fishermen in San Diego, and throughout Southern California, connect with local restaurants, retail markets, and the public, we’re launching a California Spiny Lobster campaign in San Diego. With opening day on October 7th fast approaching, there are ways you can get involved.

  • San Diego chefs, fishmongers, and seafood buyers: Add California spiny lobster to your menus and seafood cases this season. If you buy from a San Diego fisherman, you are guaranteed off-the-boat prices. You’ll be supporting the community while providing a seasonal delicacy.

  • State and local officials: Consider formal support, including a proclamation that designates October 11th as California Spiny Lobster Day, permits that allow direct sales of live spiny lobster off boats or dockside, and streamlined permitting for public spiny lobsterfest events.

  • Seafood lovers: Ask for and buy San Diego-sourced California spiny lobster, and support the businesses who carry this sustainable local product.

  • For all: Come to San Diego Spiny Lobsterfest on what will hopefully be Spiny Lobster Day, Sunday, October 11th between 8 am- 2 pm at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, where all San Diego lobster fishermen who have expressed interest are welcome to come and sell their live product. There will also be prepared meals for those ready to grab and go!  Public health and distancing guidelines will be strictly enforced, so bring your masks and coolers!

  • And, connect with the San Diego Spiny Lobster Lovers Community through the FB Group page: SDSpinyLobster. This page is for communication among San Diego’s spiny lobster fishermen, retail and restaurant reps, and the interested public. It is a platform to share information about spiny lobster sales, events, recipes, and more! 

 graphic with orange sun rays, swirling blue ocean and a California spiny lobster floating over a silhouette of the San Diego skyline)

These local food system relationships are not only for this season, but the hope is to make lasting change to put more California spiny lobster, and other California seafood, on our plates for years to come. And when someone says “Happy National Lobster Day!” maybe we will think of this in addition to that.

 A California spiny lobsterfest and a Maine lobsterfest poster side by side each containing images of the local lobster for comparison)