Some people say that the only other thing a lobster fisherman does besides fish is drink. This image of the hard-drinking, hardworking, hardheaded fisherman is traditional, and it might even be true. At any rate, it’s true often enough that one has to wonder whether or not it is the fisherman who is attracted to drink, or the drunkard who is attracted to fishing. Lobster fishermen themselves don’t do too much to discourage that impression of their profession. My impression is that they don’t much give a damn what anybody thinks of them. People who insist on spending their lives alone in a little boat 300 yards to the west of the civilized world are hardly preoccupied with their public image.
Nevertheless, when I recently went out lobster fishing with Randy Miller, of Encinitas, he seemed sober enough for 5:30 in the morning. “I’m a family man,” he protested as he cleared the beer bottles off the deck of his skiff. “I go to bed when my daughter goes to bed.”
We shouted back and forth over the noise of his diesel engine as it warmed up. The sky to the east was just starting to turn orange when we pulled out of the Oceanside harbor. It was a clear morning with a medium swell that, from the perspective of his open boat, looked bigger than it really was. “There’ll be a wind from the northwest later on,” Miller said.
We started checking his traps as soon as we were outside the harbor jetty. Miller’s traps run from San Clemente to Cardiff, but today we would only go south as far as Swami’s, in Encinitas. There were dozens of multicolored buoys, but only those aqua and white were his. I was surprised that the fishermen didn’t have their separate territories staked out. “Naw. I’m afraid the days of the gentleman fisherman are over,” Miller said. Not only do the lobster fishermen have to worry about divers stealing from their traps, but fishermen have begun stealing from other fishermen’s traps, and even taking another man’s buoy and replacing it with their own — stealing the trap, in effect. “It’s pretty cutthroat, really.”
Miller snagged the first buoy with a long pole and dragged the line toward him. Then he slipped the line over a hydraulic davit, which has replaced human muscle for the backbreaking job of hauling the traps up off the bottom. As the trap boiled to the surface, he leaned over and hacked the seaweed off with a knife. Only then could we see that the trap was empty — just a couple snails and a little starfish picking the bait clean. He rebaited the trap with a rock cod head, glanced at his fathometer to find the reef, then shoved the trap overboard. Whatever the romantic notions of lobster fishing might be, this simple, fluid, repetitive act — hauling the traps, rebaiting them, and shoving them overboard — is really what the lobster fisherman does with his day. This is the reality of his trade.
“I don’t know how these guys do it who drink all the time,” Miller laughed. “I used to be able to do it when I was younger, but not so much anymore. One of the best fishermen on the coast recently had a 300-pound guy fall off a bar stool and land on his knee. I mean, that’s the kind of thing these guys have to worry about.… I remember one time when I ran into this friend of mine. He was fishing out past the kelp beds on this cold December morning. He was waving a wine bottle around and called me over to share a drink with him. I thought, sure, why not? I started heading over there, and I could see from a distance that he wasn’t wearing a shirt — I mean, it was cold! When I pulled up alongside him, there was a woman aboard, and I swear to God she wasn’t wearing anything but this guy’s shirt.” Miller shook his head. “That guy never has any money, but he always has these women. I don’t understand it.”
Miller has been fishing for lobsters for about 15 years and gill-netting fish in the off-season. He doesn’t look as salty as you might expect. Even in a grimy old baseball cap and rubber boots he looks young for 34, not at all like someone who makes his living from the sea. Born and raised in Encinitas, he grew up watching the fishermen come in at Swami’s. He used to help them with their catches, and he always thought it was something he’d like to try. In 1964, when he was going to MiraCosta College in Oceanside, he started fishing in order to earn his way through school. “I was playing a little basketball andwasn’t really into school that much. One day I asked my coach how much money he made. He told me he made about $900 a month. Well, I was making that much every two weeks and only working about four days a week. So I quit going to school and I’ve been fishing ever since.”
The second trap Randy pulled was empty, too, except for a bunch of beer cans. “It’s the standard catch outside the harbor,” he shrugged. “The only thing I can figure out is that the bottom must be covered with them. I’ve hauled up sofas, chairs.… One time I pulled up a stretcher with an outboard motor strapped on it.” Not far away, lounging on one of the big buoys marking the entrance to the harbor, were a half dozen fat seals. They looked hungry and lazy, like many of the characters who hang around the Oceanside harbor. I asked Miller if they ever steal from his traps. “Sure,” he nodded, “especially if you use bonito for bait. They love bonito.”
Some lobster fishermen say that seals are their number-one enemy; supposedly, the seals know how to open traps and steal everything. But Miller says that scuba divers are his biggest enemies. “I hate divers. Five out of ten won’t steal from you, but the other five will. If they’re out diving and they haven’t caught anything, and they see a big one in your trap, and no one’s around, they’ll take it.” One time he hauled up a trap with a diver attached; his arm was in the hatch. The guy’s wetsuit was torn and his arm was bleeding. I wondered if it ever made Miller feel like committing violence. “Sure, but I can’t ever find anybody in the water mad enough to fight me.” (One veteran fisherman out of La Jolla purportedly carries a submachine gun on board to intimidate divers. The same guy caught a diver stealing from his traps one time. He grabbed the diver by the collar, gunned his engine, and dragged him out to the kelp beds before letting him go. “Next time I’ll take you clear out to the islands,” he said.)
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.
Almost everything that moves in the ocean is the lobster’s enemy. It isn’t easy being the tastiest animal around. Besides man, the lobster’s biggest enemy is probably the sheepshead, a fish that resembles a swimming jaw. A pretty good argument could be made that the sheepshead has evolved to eat lobsters, so huge and powerful are its jaws. Sheepsheads have been found with dozens of lobsters in their stomachs. Another connoisseur of lobsters is the octopus, which seeks them out among the rocks, entangles them in its tentacles, then pecks away at their tender bellies with its beak. Other enemies are the eel, the seal, even large starfish.
For protection against these predators, called “varmints” by fishermen, the lobster has only its spiny shell and its strong tail, which allows it to move swiftly over short distances and which its lined on the underside with rosebush-like thorns that are sharp enough to pierce a leather glove. Spiny lobsters have no claws. (The lack of claws has led East Coast fishermen to claim that the Pacific spiny lobster isn’t really a lobster at all, but rather a crawfish. This tends to anger West Coast fishermen, who answer in turn that the spiny lobster is more of a lobster because it has a bigger tail and therefore more meat.)
Lobsters molt, or shed their shells, about once a year, usually in the late summer. This is necessary because their bodies outgrow their shells. Fishermen call this process “shooting their suit,” and the lobster that hasn’t yet grown a hardened shell is called a “rubber bug.” They are extremely vulnerable to varmints at this stage and quickly eat their old shells for the calcium necessary to grow a new one. “I had a friend one time,” Miller said, “who brought in about a seven-pound rubber bug. He was afraid it was going to die before he could sell it, so he was carrying it around in a blanket like a little baby, saying, ‘Cook it now! Cook it now!’ ”
By the time Miller had checked his traps as far south as Ponto, south of Carlsbad, he had 13 lobsters in the bucket. “Thirteen’s a rough number to get stuck on. So is 30, for some reason. After that I don’t count anymore,” he said while pulling seaweed off a trap. One look at a lobster trap and you know lobsters aren’t the brightest creatures in the ocean. The trap basically is just a wire-mesh cage with a funnel-shaped entrance. The lobster goes in after the bait, then can’t remember how to get back out. They remind me of shopping malls, which operate on the same principle. A recent innovation is the mandatory escape port for undersized shorts. Lobsters caught in the traps are vulnerable to varmints, so the escape port lets the little ones out. It also keeps honest the fisherman who is tempted to take shorts. Another protection is the fish and game regulation that the fisherman check his traps every 96 hours.
I asked Miller how often he gets checked by the fish and game. “Probably a lot more than I realize,” he said. “They sit up on the cliffs with telescopes they could read the warning on a pack of cigarettes with. People tell me I’m being watched all the time. But I don’t mind. I like it when the fish and game is active. It protects my livelihood.” Most fishermen seem to feel that their rapport with the fish and game wardens, whom they call “fish cops,” is pretty good these days. But there was a time not too long ago when this wasn’t so. The classic example of this is the Dale Woodward case.
In the mid-’60s, Woodward was by all accounts the premier lobster fisherman in Southern California. He was an imposing six feet, five inches tall, weighed 250 pounds, and had two purple hearts from his experiences in Guam during World War II. They say that he was bitter about his treatment by the Veteran’s Administration and sour about government in general. But as a lobster fisherman he was so intelligent and innovative that many of his contributions to the industry are still in effect. They say he built the best boats and that the traps that are being used today were more or less developed by him. His abilities in finding and catching lobsters are still legendary. (He fished from Los Angeles to Baja to the Channel Islands and made a temporary home for himself wherever his luck held.)
At some point Woodward began taking large numbers of shorts in flagrant violation of the fish and game. He apparently understood quite clearly that this would eventually destroy his career and was unhealthy for the industry as a whole, but they say he was inspired by his extreme dislike for the fish and game.
During this time, the fish and game in San Diego was run by a man known as Captain Glass. Fishermen describe Captain Glass as being a retired military sort of law enforcement nut who couldn’t even identify the fish he was supposed to protect. They also imply that some of his wardens could be induced to overlook certain violations in return for a bag of lobsters or a bottle of whiskey. Whether or not this was true, Glass himself was very much disliked by the fishermen.
Now, even as an outlaw Woodward was inventive. It’s said that he had refrigeration trucks made up to look like camper vans to transport the illegal shorts, that he made arrangements for airplanes to land at San Clemente Island to pick up the shorts and fly them to Las Vegas, and that he had a processing plant set up in his house where he could cook 1000 pounds of lobster at a crack. He made a lot of money at this, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble.
Eventually, Woodward and the fish and game met head-on, and Woodward lost. His boat was impounded and his license was revoked. (They say it took the fish and game hours just to figure out how his boat worked — it had decks that slid back and hydraulic this and that.) Fishermen still contend that Woodward’s rights were violated in the bust, but there was really never any question that he was guilty. Woodward is supposedly fishing in Costa Rica now.
Other fishermen who didn’t think on quite the scale of Dale Woodward didn’t have any trouble selling all the shorts they could catch. They sometimes worked with a salesman, often a kid, who would peddle them door-to-door in La Jolla. Nobody considered this to be a bad thing — the customers often thought they were simply “buying direct.” If you ask the fishermen if there’s an active short business today, they will, of course, say no. And for the 10 or 15 professionals who stay at it all season, this is probably true. As Miller says, “Why should I endanger my livelihood to sell a few shorts?” Nevertheless, among the marginal fishermen, the 50 or 60 who are barely making it, there is little doubt that the short business still exists, though it is done clandestinely and usually among friends only.
By the time we’d reached Swami’s, Miller had 20 lobsters in the bucket, which meant he would make a profit today. Still, he wasn’t pleased. One trap had three good-size shells in it, but the meat had been picked clean by varmints. “These guys had to fight through the octopi to get to the trap,” he said. It was a full moon, and there’s always a lot of varmint activity on a full moon. He had pulled traps that day that had octopi, eels, and spider crabs still in them. Several traps had starfish as big as a plate. He’d fling them away like Frisbees.
I asked Miller if the lobster fishing was better off San Clemente Island — “outside,” as it is called. “Well, those guys come back with big grosses, but I always want to look at their net profits. You’ve got to catch twice as much out there to make the same profit. I won’t go outside unless I absolutely have to. You go out for ten days and come back to find you weren’t the husband and father you should have been.” There are lobster fishermen who say that the use of big boats going outside is where the future of lobster fishing is and that this is forcing the small, independent fisherman out of business. Others say they are being forced out by the economic realities of Southern California. One such fisherman is Gordon Culbertson.
Culbertson fished out of La Jolla for years. “I was born in La Jolla; that was my home. I rented a two-bedroom house there for $75 a month, and there were cheaper houses. I fished out of my home, like all the fishermen. This was a time when people raised chickens in their back yard. As things began to change, I was told by my neighbors that I was a detriment to the neighborhood, that I had a messy back yard. It was full of traps and fishing gear. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was my back yard. I began to receive notices of zoning violations from the city. They said I couldn’t run a business out of my home. All fishermen worked out of their homes.” Eventually, he was forced to leave. The house Culbertson lived in was recently sold for $120,000. “Look what they’re doing to La Jolla now,” he says. “A bunch of rich bastards.…”
Randy Miller agrees that it’s a pity what’s happened to La Jolla. “You have to be a rock star or a cocaine dealer to live there anymore. Even the real estate agents are being squeezed out.” He’s concerned about the same thing happening where he lives, in Encinitas. “Everyone on my street drives a Cadillac Seville. I drive a beat-up old pickup full of lobster traps. I’m sure all my neighbors wonder what I’m doing there.… But my grandparents have owned that land since the 1800s.”
I wondered how much help the lobster fishermen were getting from the fish markets. “They don’t much care about the fisherman,” Miller said. “They mostly care about themselves. I’ve known lobster fishermen who were dying, and the markets wouldn’t raise their prices. They say they can get the stuff out of Mexico, but I don’t believe that. I think the Mexican stuff is going to Japan.” Other fishermen have compared the fish markets to the pilot fish on a shark — they’re a sucker fish, making their living off another man’s labor. Why don’t the fishermen organize, form a cooperative? “It goes against the nature of a fisherman,” Miller said. “They’re too independent. I’ve been to a few fishermen meetings, and they always end in a big punch-out.”
Shortly after noon we turned around and headed back to Oceanside. It was getting windy and a little rough, but it was still a beautiful day and a pleasure to be out. Miller checked a few traps on the way in and picked up a few more lobsters, but mostly we were heading straight home — “making smoke.” On the way back we talked and told stories, “sea stories,” as the fishermen call them, which is a polite term for lies. But Miller told me one story that didn’t strike me as a sea story because of the deadly serious manner in which he told it:
“I was going a little too fast one day and not paying attention to what I was doing. I kicked a trap over the side and at the same time gunned the throttle. Well, as the line ran out it somehow got tangled around my wrist, and the drag on the line pulled me down and pinned me against the transom. I couldn’t reach the throttle, so I just went around in circles there for maybe ten minutes. My arm was getting tired, and I knew I couldn’t pull against that line much longer. I thought about jumping overboard and trying to untangle the line off my wrist. I’m glad I didn’t do that, because I later had to cut the rope off with a knife — I would have drowned. What I did was I kicked the engine hatch open with my foot, then pulled the coil wire off with my toe.… That was the closest I ever came to being killed on the ocean.”
On the way back we passed other lobster fishermen. Some were heading in too, but others looked as if they were barely getting out. We waved at some and even stopped to chat here and there. Before we got in, Miller cleaned up the boat, washed off the deck, shoved the pile of seaweed out the scuppers, and peeked in the bucket for a look at his catch. He had about 40 pounds of lobster, for which he’d make about $130. It wasn’t much compared to the day he came in with 750 pounds, but for a nine-hour day it was equivalent to the pay in many other trades. “There’ll be better days, and there’ll be worse days,” he mused. “But not much worse.”