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It’s Time Again to Load the Traps

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ivar Southern’s infatuation with the sea began as a toddler, when he watched his father tending lobster traps off Newport Beach. This week, he resumes his role in what has become a three-decade family legacy of lobster fishing off the Orange County coast.

Southern loaded up his boat Friday with traps near the Balboa Pavilion. By Wednesday, the start of the commercial lobster season, Southern will have scattered 280 traps along rocky outcroppings between Dana Point and Huntington Beach.

“It’s hard work, but I don’t mind,” he said. “What I like is the freedom, and being out there fishing alone.”

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Southern, 26, of Newport Beach, is one of about 250 licensed commercial lobster fishermen in California. The local industry--and the lobsters themselves--are vastly different from New England’s.

By the end of the season, March 20, local lobstermen will have landed about a half-million pounds of spiny lobsters, also known as rock lobsters. In Maine alone, last year’s haul was 56 million pounds.

Unlike the Maine variety, local lobsters don’t have claws, said Kristine Barsky, a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game and coauthor of “California Lobster Diving.”

The California spiny lobster is found in warm waters from Monterey Bay to Manzanillo, Mexico, with the majority found between Point Conception and Magdalena Bay, Baja California. The nocturnal lobsters favor rocky habitat and caves and can live for 30 years.

Commercial fishermen typically use wire traps that are baited with whole or cut fish and sit on the ocean floor. They must throw back anything that’s smaller than 3 1/4 inches long from the forehead to carapace, where the tail begins. That means lobsters that are caught are typically at least 7 years old, allowing a healthy brood stock for mating to keep the fishery stable.

Much of the haul used to be sold to Asian countries, including Japan. But as the Far Eastern economy has weakened, lobstermen have been trying to create a local market.

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Wayne Southern, Ivar’s father, has sold his lobsters to the Blue Water Grill on Lido Isle in Newport Beach for years. Matriarch Linda is listed in owner Jim Ulcickas’ Rolodex as “Lobster Linda.”

The restaurant, which buys about 6,000 pounds of local lobster during the season, already has received calls from regulars who want to know if the tasty crustaceans have arrived, Ulcickas said. “We’ve really developed a following for it.”

Ulcickas said he buys the lobsters, typically 1 1/2 pounds but sometimes as big as 4 or 5 pounds, right off the fishermen’s boats at the pier in front of the restaurant.

The lobsters are whisked into the kitchen, where they’re boiled, cut in half, and flat-grilled with butter and fresh garlic.

This is where the biggest controversy in the local lobster industry arises: Which tastes better, Maine or spiny?

“I’m not bagging on the East Coast--that’s their heritage,” Southern said. But a local lobster, “it’s a true lobster.”

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Fisherman Ken Calvert of Huntington Beach always heard that local lobsters are tastier. He wouldn’t know, though.

“I’ve never had one from Maine.”

Barsky, the marine biologist, said: “Purists will always tell you they can tell the difference. I think if you boil it nicely, I don’t think you can tell. They’re both tender meat.”

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