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The Bugs Aren’t Biting : Seafood: Small catch, foreign competition add up to bad lobster season after four weeks. Restaurant prices may rise.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Craig Ghio usually runs a two-month special on lobsters at his restaurants during lobster season.

Four weeks into this year’s season, his lobster promotion already is old news. So bad has this year’s lobster season been that Ghio is running a shrimp special instead.

“Basically, it’s been lousy,” lamented Ghio, owner of Anthony’s Seafood Restaurants in San Diego.

Ghio blames not only a weak season but foreign competition for his lobster woes. According to Ghio, “One of our biggest problems this year is our demand from the Oriental market. In Taiwan and Japan, the demand is great. They have people (buyers) who hold them live, then pack and ship them.”

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The bad season became apparent to Tom Buckner, a lifeguard supervisor in Encinitas, when he saw the 30 or so lobster traps that had strayed into the surf line and were retrieved to prevent them from endangering the public.

“Only six or seven lobsters were found in the 30 or so traps taken,” he said. Normally, lobstermen could expect a lobster in each trap.

The first four weeks of the 5 1/2-month season are usually the most active, with 40% of the catch taken, officials said. No one has tallied the count so far this year, but it quickly became apparent to restaurants, commercial and recreational fishermen and even to foreign brokers that it would be a bad season.

Japanese buyers quickly began offering commercial fishermen $6.50 and $7 per lobster. They could afford to, since the Japanese public is willing to pay as much as $100 for a California lobster dinner. Ghio says he had been paying $4.50 per lobster--which means he is having trouble getting hold of the lobster supply he needs.

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The result, Ghio reports, is that the California diners “end up getting the short end of the deal.” If the trend continues throughout the season, the $19.50 lobster dinner at Anthony’s could cost up to 7 dollars more, Ghio said.

Nobody can say for certain why this lobster season is disappointing--but everyone seems to have an opinion.

Bert Kobayashi, supervisor of UC San Diego’s diving program, thinks recreational divers should take most of the blame.

“There’s a lot of macho glory for the diver,” Kobayashi said. This machismo usually drives the diver to take not only his limit of seven, but to take the biggest lobsters they can find. That’s legal, but it also removes the lobsters with the most eggs.

Kobayashi says today’s commercial fishermen is much more conservation oriented, using traps that only catch lobsters of legal size but are rarely able to hold lobsters bigger than 5 pounds.

“It’s hard for people to understand, because the commercial fishermen doesn’t have a limit,” Kobayashi said, but the dwindling supply is not their fault.

The record so far this year goes to an amateur diver that Department of Fish and Game officials said they caught with 119 undersized lobsters. His fine or jail time will be decided in the courts.

Buckner, the Encinitas lifeguard, attributes the bad season to lack of “housing.” He reasoned that local dredging of North County beaches and March rains caused more sand to fill reefs, where the lobsters like to live. Buckner said he noticed the increased sand when diving just a few days before lobster season began. With the reefs filled, he thinks the lobsters went elsewhere.

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Anthony’s owner Ghio thinks the supply is cyclical.

“The catch has gone up and down, there’s always good seasons, mediocre seasons and poor seasons,” he said.

Officials say that, besides the lack of lobsters, fishermen have had unusual problems this year with traps wandering into the surf line.

The traps are usually set as far as a few miles out, but heavy waves can pull a line of traps within the area used by swimmers and surfers--or even near people walking on the beach.

Surfers’ leashes can tangle in the buoys used to mark a line of traps. The death of an Encinitas surfer in 1985 resulted in a court case claiming a lobster buoy caused his drowning.

The traps pose a threat to swimmers as well, Buckner said. If kelp entangles traps, the trap can look like kelp, especially when visibility is poor. “The 2-foot-by-3-foot square wire mesh trap can hurt you,” Buckner says. Buckner also cautioned beach-goers to be careful when they near large clumps of seaweed.

Heavy swells last week pulled an unusually large number of traps toward shore. Buckner said lifeguards hauled in 18 traps last week alone.


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