EACH DAY, chef Trey Foshee looks out his window at George’s at the Cove—one of the city’s best ocean views. From November to March, he can see fishermen hauling in San Diego’s famous spiny lobsters. He celebrated each season with a special tasting menu.
"People would call months in advance to reserve," he says. "Now, for the second year, we can’t really afford to do it."
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."
Down at the docks, lobster fisherman Shad Caterius agrees. Most of his catch ends up in China, where lobsters are an important part of traditional wedding meals. "They prefer ours because they have no claws and look more like their own," he says. "They also transport better than most warm-water species."
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. But it’s not without painful side effects. "I’m expecting to lose about a third of my income due to closures of the areas we fish," says Caterius.
Lobster isn’t the first local delicacy to hop a red-eye out of San Diego. Urban Solace chef-owner Matt Gordon is a big fan of American Tuna, a collective of six pole-fishing families in San Diego, founded in 2005. Famed chefs like Thomas Keller and Tom Colicchio serve their tuna exclusively. But locals like Gordon can only get it frozen.
"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."
Glennon suggests the solution lies in educating chefs and home cooks—on what to buy, and whom to buy it from. "Often, companies claim it’s local when it’s not," he says. "Traceability can be vague. Chefs also have to accept imperfections, just like heirloom tomatoes—which are the most delicious, but not perfectly round or unblemished."
"People need to support sustainable wild tuna fisheries and locally sourced products with traceability back to the vessel that caught it," says Webster. "But there’s a premium you have to pay for that."
Until San Diegans are able and willing to pay, local seafood will be a delicacy best enjoyed in Beijing.
"We want to expose locals and visitors to what San Diego has, rather than fly lobster in from 3,000 miles away," says Foshee. "But the only way I can rationalize doing it is at an exorbitant price."