International market struggles could prove for huge domestic boost this year
With lobster season fast approaching, for some it means the return of one of the best seafood delicacies out there.
But for Ray Kennedy, it’s a chance to return to the ocean one more time and enjoy doing what he’s loved nearly his whole life: catching lobsters.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and I believe I was fish in a former life, so I just always gravitate back to the ocean,” Mr. Kennedy, CEO of Defiance Seafoods and the man who runs the fishing vessel “Rain Man,” said with a laugh.
“I have been a surfer, a spear fisherman diver since I was a teen so getting into this line of work has always just been natural for me.”
For three decades, Mr. Kennedy has been involved in catching and selling lobsters, both locally and internationally.
The official start of the lobster season is Wednesday, the first time fishermen can go out and legally catch and retain lobsters.
It also means that this Saturday, for the first time in months, Mr. Kennedy will be there selling the special crawfish that’s only in season for about six months of the year.
“There tends to be a little bit of lobster fever right about this time and people get a little excited about it and it’s a good thing to be excited about as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Kennedy said.
For years, Mr. Kennedy and his deckhand, Henry Hepp, have gone out and caught lobster during this time. This year will be no different as since it’s just the two of them, they can successfully adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus did hurt their selling capability to another country, specifically China.
“We used to sell almost primarily to China but that market is gone. There is a lot of demand for our product. It’s a very hearty product and that’s why it’s well sought after on the international market because it can actually make it to China,” Mr Kennedy said, adding that it had been their primary market for about the last 15 years because it can survive a 36-hour flight to the foreign land.
Mr. Kennedy hasn’t ruled out that the market could return, but he doesn’t anticipate that happening until there’s a change in the White House.
“It really can’t happen until we adapt our policies toward China that are a little bit more trade friendly. Interestingly enough, there have been sanctions put on so many Chinese products and we were one of the few businesses with lobster that were putting a dent in that international trade deficit with China, yet that’s been kind of shut down by the retaliatory tariffs and they’re not exactly welcoming our imports at this time,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue as the cancelation of international flights made it even more impossible to get the lobster to China even if there was interest.
Regardless, Mr. Kennedy said he is more than optimistic that they can make up some revenue here locally.
Santa Barbara County resides along the ocean and, as a result, there are many seafood restaurants that always welcome lobster to their menu.
“We are always optimistic. I think that there is a certain amount of domestic demand and in addition we can market through our fishermen’s market on Saturday mornings and work on some other direct marketing ideas so that some of the local consumers can actually get a hold of this product that is very much sought after. It’s a real delicacy but usually not available in quantity like it might be this year on a local basis,” Mr. Kennedy said.
He added that it’s this hope that will continue having Mr. Kennedy and his deckhand out in the ocean as much as any normal year and catching as many lobsters as they can.
“There has been a lot of demand during this pandemic for fresh and local seafood, so I thought that regardless of what happened with the international market, I had a certain amount of confidence in the local markets, the domestic markets, would have the kind of demand that would encourage us to kind of follow business as normal,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“We’re going to fish, we’re going to see what we can catch, we’re going to see how we can market that to the best of our abilities, but it’s an excellent opportunity for the local consumers here to taste something that’s pretty spectacular.”
While the market will still need to play itself out, Mr. Kennedy said he can’t rule out the possibility that the local market for lobster might be cheaper this year than in previous years.
He said in previous years when the domestic market is lower, restaurants jump at the opportunity, citing that when it’s on the higher end around $75 to $100 a plate the demand dips a bit.
Mr. Kennedy also added that local fisherman down at the market also may take more of an interest if the prices are lower here.
“This might be an excellent opportunity for some of the other local restaurants to jump back in and find a way to market our local lobster,” he said.
“We never really know what’s going to happen, but we have enjoyed over the last 15 years some really great wholesale prices so we are just hoping for the best and prepared to be cautious on the other hand.
“Our prices are really determined by those wholesale buyers and that is subject to the standards of supply and demand so that’s always something that we have to deal with. Obviously as a businessman I’m hoping for things on the upside.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way and other times it’s pretty reasonable and pretty fruitful.”
Catching lobster is also a very sustainable process. Because the catching season only runs from early October until mid-March, Mr. Kennedy said it’s the perfect amount of time for them to have a safe breeding season and for there to be a plentiful amount of lobster in the sea to not upset the ecosystem.
“It’s a great resource and it has been deemed a very sustainable resource. It has a rigorous fisheries management plan enforced that ensures that by allowing a good breeding season,” Mr. Kennedy said.
During the other half of the year, Mr. Kennedy said he tries catching other fish such as yellow tail, tuna and swordfish but nothing compares to catching lobster.
“Lobster is my mainstay and that’s what pays the bills for myself and my family,” he said.
For the 64-year old, there’s still nothing quite like catching a lobster during this six-month window.
“It’s definitely a rush. It’s just a really fun thing to pull it up every trap, seeing what’s in it, taking your knowledge and trying to readjust to maybe catch a few more,” Mr. Kennedy said.
“I’m still having a lot of fun doing it and I don’t plan on quitting anytime soon.”