California spiny lobsters lack the pincers typical of Maine lobsters and are sweeter than their East Coast counterparts—but Americans are lucky if they ever find them on their dinner plates.
"Catching lobsters, for me, is a combination of Christmas morning and Easter egg hunting," Hank Parfitt says, grinning.
Parfitt hails from North Carolina and today he's fully dressed, from head to toe, in a thick neoprene wetsuit. We are on a scuba diving boat chartered by Ocean Safari at Santa Cruz Island—one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. It is October 1, the first day of recreational spiny lobster season this year.
The water temperature is 65 degrees and although the visibility isn't fantastic underwater, the excitement on the boat is palpable. Many of the attendees have been anticipating the season opener all year.
Parfitt caught a three-pounder on the first dive in the morning; he says he hasn't missed a season in 40 years. Every year, he'll come out from North Carolina to California just to grab some bugs.
"They are a tremendous challenge to find in the water. They are the ultimate escape artist," he says.
On that morning dive—my first attempt at the art of lobster hunting—I had spotted one underneath a den staring back at me, waving its long, pointy antennas. Lobsters can't see clear images or colors; antennas are their main sensory organs. Excited, I threw my hand inside the crevice and only managed to touch the antennas before the red creature burrowed itself deep underneath the rock. Immediately, a moray eel poked its head out and I jumped back, conceding defeat.
Parfitt shakes his head as I tell him this story.
"You have to pin the lobsters down. It's all about persistence," he says.
"I did a taste test with friends one time and the California ones won out," Parfitt says. "The first bite is slightly chewy. The second one is the most profound—it has a creamy and extremely nutty flavor."
But for most Americans, with the exception of scuba divers like Parfitt, California spiny lobster is a delicious delicacy that won't end up at the average dinner table.
It is estimated that up to 95 percent of all commercially caught lobster is shipped to China. In California they are trucked to Los Angeles, where they are packaged up, and flown straight east. In Mexico, that percentage is estimated to be up to 99 percent.
"It's because of the cost," Kate Masury, a recent Masters graduate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, says. "There is such a huge demand for spiny lobster in China and the prices have gone up pretty dramatically each year." Masury is behind the site Follow Your Fish, which tracks the supply chain behind certain American seafood like the California squid and spiny lobster.
According to Masury, seafood buyers in China initially preferred the Australian spiny lobster. The Chinese, she says, aren't privy to clawed crustaceans and tend to prefer spiny ones.
However, the fisheries in Australia could not keep up with Chinese demand and by the early 2000s, the California lobster started to be transported to China in large numbers to meet sales.
In 2009, the California lobster retailed for about $10 per pound. In 2015, that price skyrocketed to close to $30.
The increased demand from China has raised prices of the California spiny lobster to the point where most Americans consumers are not willing to pay for it.
"I would be very happy to sell all those lobsters to the United States," says Dave Rudie, the owner of Catalina Offshore Products, one of the largest seafood import and export companies in California. "The problem is that as much as people talk about buying local, they actually buy based on the price."
Rudie estimates that 95 percent of his lobsters are currently shipped to China. He'll personally deliver some of them to the Los Angeles International Airport, into the hands of a buyer, who will put a box of crustaceans directly on a freight flight to China. Rudie says demand from Asia started about two decades ago, and demand from China following ten years after that.
"We talk about the factories overseas and people taking our jobs. But the truth is that Americans want cheaper stuff," he says. "That means Maine lobsters instead of California ones because Maine lobsters are cheaper."
Even Parfitt, a recreational scuba diver, has observed the increased demand for lobster during his four decades of hunting.
"I've noticed that there are more traps out by commercial fisheries," he says. "It's hard to tell if that's affecting the lobster population."
The spiny lobster isn't completely inaccessible to American consumers, though. While the bugs can't be found in most supermarkets or restaurants, they can be directly bought online from buyers like Catalina Offshore Products; there are also a few restaurants and markets, like Mitch's Seafood and the Tuna Dockside Harbor in San Diego, that make a point of selling homegrown seafood.
"Mitch's Seafood is fantastic," Masury says. "He sells the lobsters at an affordable price and sometimes he doesn't even make a profit off of it. That's how passionate he is about buying local."
Back at the boat, my scuba group and I do not manage to catch any lobsters. We had pinned some down underwater but they ended up being too small. It's not a big deal—there are still many months left in the season.
"The minimum size limit for California spiny lobster is three and one-fourth inches, from the horn of the lobster to the rear edge of the body shell," Thomas Templar, a scuba instructor at Ocean Safari, says.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is extremely strict about the regulations. The daily bag limit is seven per person and a license is required.
Though we don't get any bugs, there are still plenty of other fish in the sea.
Andy Rios, the divemaster in my group, spears a handful of calico bass and a large sheephead. We eat the calico raw and he makes the sheephead into a miso soup. Throughout the trip, I pop scallops and uni, freshly cracked open and picked out from the ocean floor, into my mouth like candy.
As I'm eating the bounty of fish on the deck of the boat overlooking the sunset, I realize how extraordinary the moment is. Here I am, eating seafood from California in California that most Californians rarely get the chance to eat.
The United States controls more ocean than any other country on earth, yet we
import up to 90 percent of our seafood, about half of which is produced via aquaculture. Sheephead and calico, like the spiny lobster, can't be found in the average American supermarket. Most of our best-quality seafood is exported abroad; a third of seafood American catch gets sold to foreign countries.
This narrative of domestic seafood being shipped to other countries isn't just limited to spiny lobsters.
"As local divers, there's a value that comes from eating in your own backyard," Garrett Lu, a scuba instructor from Ocean Safari, says. "It's a way of connecting with the sea and understanding our own ecosystem."