If this year’s season goes anything like last year’s, California’s spiny lobster fishermen can expect on-again-off-again product flow to mainstem markets in Asia in sync with rhythms of covid outbreaks and recessions. But trade wars between China and Australia could jack ex-vessel prices to new highs.

According to data from PacFIN, spiny lobster trappers in 2020 landed 329.5 metric tons of the critters for an average ex-vessel price of $19.09 per pound for revenues of $13.87 million. So far in 2021 the fleet put in 88.9 metric tons at average ex-vessel prices of $27.34 per pound for revenues of $5.36 million.

Those are the averages. Conditions varied widely during the 2019-20 season, which began in early October of 2019 and ended on March 18, 2020.

Covid set in right at the tail end of the 2019-20 season, and prices dropped from $13.92 per pound at the tail end of January to $10.62 per pound.

“This decrease was a direct result of the impact of the covid-19 pandemic and the closing of international seafood markets,” says Jenny Hofmeister, an environmental scientist with the Invertebrate Program with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in San Diego. “Though concern was raised about a depressed market and continued low price, when the 2020-21 season opened in October 2020 spiny lobsters sold for an average of $14.88 per pound during the first week of the season.”

By the end of December, Hofmeister notes that the ex-vessel prices jumped to a record $38.70 per pound. Much of that sharp spike has been attributed to exports to trade warring between Australia and China, which prevented Australian lobsters from being exported there. That in turn increased demand and ex-vessel prices for lobster coming out of California and headed for China. In March, she reported that prices had stabilized and were hovering near $20 per pound.

As for the coming season, it opens on Oct. 6 and closes on March 16, 2022. Though Hofmeister and her team anticipate increases in effort as ex-vessel based on last year’s prices that went through the roof the final verdict will come later this year after compiling the data from fishermen's logbooks. Lobster size limits, pot limits, closures during spawning season and other management measures should ensure the health of the resource, according to Hofmeister.

Another optimistic factor for divers in the coming year may be that last year’s season had acceptable levels of domoic acid in all harvest areas.

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Charlie Ess is the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman.

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