Lobsters Again on the Run at Irvine Sushi Bar
Customers at an Irvine sushi restaurant can take turns trying to snag live lobsters from a tank after city officials on Friday backed away from earlier threats to cite the owner for cruelty to the crustaceans.
“The city went overboard,” said Khang Do, owner of Sumo Sushi Seafood, who said business dropped after he was forced to pull the plug last week on the popular game. “We demand an apology from the city.”
For $2, customers can use a plastic claw to corner a lobster while the theme from “Jaws” booms in the background. If customers catch one, the restaurant prepares it for the winner.
A city animal services officer who witnessed the game threatened to cite the restaurant, prompting last week’s shutdown. Do consulted an attorney and decided to defy the city. He plugged the game back in Friday during a news conference.
The standoff didn’t last long.
Irvine City Atty. Joel Kuperberg faxed Do a letter saying the restaurant would not be cited: “What the restaurant is doing doesn’t constitute using equipment to inflict pain on animals, as defined in the Irvine city code.”
Animal rights activists, meanwhile, are furious.
“If any one deserves an apology, it’s the lobsters,” said Dawn Carr, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a national animals rights organization that has been fighting to shut down the games that are cropping up at bars and restaurants nationwide. “Making a game out of the impending demise of a living animal is poor taste at best.”
One factor that aided Do is the broadness of the city code, which states: It is “unlawful to use any equipment, device . . . on animals that is or could be injurious or cause unnecessary cruelty to any animal.”
The broadness of the code makes it weaker, and therefore more difficult for the city to back up, said Chapman University law professor Scott Howe.
“It’s so vague that you can’t figure out what it covers,” he said. “You would need a judge to interpret it and narrow its definition.”
The game is not cruel to the lobsters, insists Do, who compared it to fishermen fishing in a stocked pond. J.R. Fishman, who invented and manufactures the game, said research shows lobsters’ nervous systems are too unsophisticated to register pain.
Besides, Fishman said, restaurant customers don’t have to play the game. “They can watch and root for the lobsters if they want,” he said.
That isn’t enough for customer Heidi Campbell. She wrote a letter to the owner of Sumo Sushi six to eight months ago about the cruelty of the machine but said she never received a response.
“I think it’s horrible,” said Campbell, 26, of Irvine. “What kind of message are we sending to children? This will desensitize children and teach them that it’s OK to pull wings off of insects.”
Opinions were mixed among other customers Friday.
“The concern I have about this machine is that the water has to be clean, and that the lobster is safe to eat,” said Rick Edwards, 39, of Irvine. “If one dies, the others can be unhealthy for human consumption.”
Larry Alpert, 62, of Corona del Mar added: “The activists are going beyond the realm of reasonableness. The restaurant should be permitted to do whatever they want to do and give the consumers a choice.”