The third trap Miller hauled had a lobster in it. “That one’s legal,” he said. He gauged him to make sure (they must measure three and a quarter inches from the eyes to the end of the body shell, not counting the tail) and tossed it in the bucket. Still, he wasn’t satisfied. “Last year that trap would have been full.” This hasn’t been a good year for Randy and for lobster fishermen generally. The reasons for that are unclear. “Everybody has their theories, but nobody really knows,” Miller conceded. “The biologists are researching the hell out of it, but I’m not sure that will do any good. The old guys who’ve been fishing for years and years — and I respect their opinion as much, or more, than any biologist — say that something’s wrong with the bottom — currants, thermal clines, I don’t know. I think it’s the cold water, and a lot of other guys do, too. Last year the water never got below 60 degrees. It’s already in the low 50s right now.”
The season is still young — it goes from early October to mid-March — but the first month is generally the best. Almost everyone agrees, however, that there is no lack of lobsters. “I think the lobster population is as healthy as it’s ever been,” Miller said. “It’s just hard to catch them right now.”
In years like this, stories of the “big catch” haunt fishermen. Rumors of the boat that came in off San Clemente Island with 3000 pounds of lobster, or memories of the year when everybody brought in 700 or 800 pounds on opening day — these cause restlessness and frustration. These stories add a get-rich-quick mentality to the industry, which in turn inspires a lot of amateurs to try their hand at it. Lobster is selling in the market at an all-time high of $6.50 per pound, and the fisherman is being paid $3.25 per pound. If you were to catch 100 pounds, the novices reason, then you would make $325, which sounds pretty good. But if they look into it further, they find that most fishermen have at least $1000 invested in their boat, even if it’s just a dinghy with an outboard motor; and some, like Miller, have more than $20,000 in their boat. Traps, if you make them yourself, cost a minimum of $15 apiece and can run as high as $50 each. It isn’t worth fishing unless you have at least 50 traps, and the best fishermen use perhaps 200 traps. So that’s a minimum of another $750. A commercial fishing license costs $40, a certificate of boat registration is $125, and a commercial lobster permit is $125. That’s $290 in fees. So the would-be fisherman is looking at a $2000 investment before he even gets his boat wet. And any successful fisherman would tell you it would take a whole lot more than that.
“Every year we get these guys,” Miller says. “They come out with no license, maybe five or six traps, working right off the jetty. They’re using boat cushions for buoys — a boat cushion costs more than a buoy, but maybe they had the boat cushion. Who knows? Oh, we’ve got firemen, schoolteachers, real estate agents out here. We’ve got the guy who fishes for the tax write-off on his sailboat. After the first big storm, they’ll head in and sell some real estate or something. But I’ll still be out here.”
The first day of the season this year eliminated many of the would-be fishermen; it was the most disastrous opening day in memory. There were swells of 15 feet. One lobster fisherman was killed off Point Loma the night before while setting his gear in the storm. The next morning a woman lobster fisherman lost her boat, and several others came close to losing theirs. Nearly everybody lost traps in the storm; they were smashed to pieces, or severed from their buoys, or washed up on shore and stolen. It was an extremely discouraging experience for many fishermen who’d been working for two months in advance, preparing themselves for opening day. Why would anyone go out in conditions like that? “Because it was opening day,” Miller said. “We were all broke, and opening day is traditionally the day of the big catches.” Since then it’s been all downhill. Miller says he hasn’t even paid for his expenses yet this year. “I made more in one week last year than I’ve made so far this year.… It’s the hardest adjustment a fisherman has to make — coming off a good year, just starting to get ahead a little, and then this. All you can do is lie low and try to get by.”
Many people are inclined to think, particularly in a poor year like this one, that lobsters are being “fished out” in the San Diego area. Apparently, this just isn’t true. Very few game animals could survive the kind of pressure man is putting on lobsters along the coast of Southern California. But for lobsters, there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem to survive, and even to thrive. The reason for that is the way lobsters reproduce. They resemble insects more than anything else and are referred to almost affectionately as “bugs” by many fishermen and divers. Some refer to them less affectionately as “the cockroach of the sea.” They do reproduce like insects — one female has been observed carrying as many as 500,000 eggs.
It was once thought that the old “bulls,” such as the 17-pound lobster taken off Catalina in 1912, were responsible for fertilizing most of the female’s eggs, in the same way that one old buck can keep several does pregnant in deer populations. But it is now believed that the old bulls may be sterile and that they eliminate many of the young lobsters by eating them, which is why the females sometimes kill the males after fertilization. Furthermore, it is believed that the smaller lobsters, the “shorts,” which are protected by fish and game regulations, are responsible for fertilizing the female’s eggs. Thus, by removing all lobsters over a certain size, the fisherman may very well be helping the whole population.