If you try to reach Marcus Medak between the months of October and February, his cell phone will go directly to voicemail. “It’s lobster season. I will try my best to call you back in a timely manner. If you need me, try texting me,” Medak states in his message.
When I meet him for the first time, it is dawn at Oceanside Harbor. His round wire-rimmed glasses give his face an owlish appearance. He wears worn jeans, rubber boots with green soles, and a sweatshirt advertising his Point Loma–based sport-fishing boat, the New Lo-An. At 42, he is surprisingly baby-faced for someone who spends his days at sea. He nods hello. Without saying a word, Medak briskly walks across the parking lot toward the dock and down the ramp that leads to his 32-foot fishing vessel. I jog behind him in order to keep up. His deckhand, Paul Hartman, is already onboard.
“In the last couple of years I have only missed two days on the ocean,” Hartman says with pride, a cigarette dangling between his lips as he readies the boat. He busies himself by filling a heavy duty plastic trash receptacle with lobster bait. The evidence of a life at sea is clear in his salty complexion. His face is wind-worn. Deep wrinkles sweep across his face like spider webs framing his sea-blue eyes and outlining his heavy white beard.
Medak peers inside the bin at the silver-and-black-flecked salmon heads, taking stock of the bait, “That all we got?” he asks his deckhand.
“That’s it,” replies Hartman.
In total, they have 200 pounds of salmon heads. Late in the season, Medak likes to fish with 250 pounds. In the beginning of lobster season it’s not abnormal for him to have 4500 pounds of bait on hand at a cost of around 50 cents per pound.
Medak shimmies into a pair of bright orange waders and blue rubber gloves while exchanging niceties with a larger lobster vessel anchored across from his. The fisherman onboard has a thick brown beard that dips below his chin.
By 6 a.m., Medak navigates his boat out of the harbor. Behind us, the sun slowly ascends, filling the sky with streaks of orange and pink.
It’ll be an average end-of-lobster-season day for Medak and Hartman — up at dawn and home after dark traveling from Oceanside to Del Mar, pulling and setting traps.
Just after 7 a.m., when most of San Diego is getting ready to start their day, Medak pulls his first trap. He swiftly slides it down the gunwale to Hartman. Three California brown pelicans take up residency on the rear of the boat. One slyly moves closer at the scent of lobster. It eyeballs Hartman as he handles the lobsters and measures them from the end of their shell to their eye sockets using a metal ruler. One by one he throws each lobster back in.
“Next year’s lobsters,” Medak remarks with an indifferent shrug as the last invertebrate hits the water with splash.
Remarks Hartman, “The other day we pulled a trap with 60 lobsters and could only keep 1.”
“Niney-nine percent of what we catch we throw back unharmed,” explains Medak.
State law requires all lobsters under three and one-fourth inches — “shorts” — be returned to the sea. They are illegal to sell.
Medak pulls another trap. Using a large knife, he cuts off a mass of kelp tangled around the rope. Out of a dozen or so lobsters inside the trap, he throws back all but two.
“Babies,” he says and with an optimistic shrug he explains, “Right now, it’s pretty mellow. The season is basically over, but I’ll keep coming out as long as I catch enough to make it worth it. If I catch 40 lobsters today, that’s a good day this time of year for me. We have to gross about $1000 a day, anything less than that, on a consistent basis, and I think about quitting for the season. This time of year, you have to be patient and stick with it, and hopefully by the end of the day you’ve caught enough.”
At the start of the season, lobsters went for $17 to $18 per pound. Now that the market is less saturated, Medak fetches $25 per pound.
The next trap pulled has a lifeless lobster and an octopus inside. “Disgusting octopus,” Medak sighs. “I used to think they were cool when I first started. They are awfully smart for invertebrates. I wish they didn’t like lobster so much.”
Apart from the octopus, just about anything that swims is a lobster’s predator. Sheephead do a lot of damage with their freakish rows of human-looking teeth capable of tearing through the lobster’s thick shell. Apart from the seals, sea lions, eels, octopus, and sheephead, an even bigger threat to Medak’s livelihood lurks in the water.
“Forty percent [of my catch] gets stolen by divers. In October, it’s a race to get to the traps before the thieves get to them. We don’t catch that many, so if someone comes and takes five lobsters from me, that’s a big chunk of what I would’ve made that day. It is stealing, but some people tell themselves it’s not,” explains Medak.
Medak has witnessed divers stealing from him firsthand.
“I had a scuba diver who was right on top of my trap. It was clear water that day so I could see him. I pulled the trap as fast as I could. It was open and empty. I did a couple of circles over his head. He stayed at the bottom and swam all the way in and got out on the beach. He got into his truck and drove away. There is nothing really you can do. There isn’t anything to be gained from overreacting. I mean, what am I going to do? Pull a gun?...which, some people do. Odds are you are going to get arrested. It’s not going to do you any good.”