Lobsters are not cheap. Since their arrival in mass quantities from the coasts of New England, and even for those opening new lines of business, prices have gone down and they have become more affordable, but Spanish lobsters continue to be something out of the ordinary.
Everyone –including myself—has been tempted to think that the price of this shellfish is exorbitant. Really, all it takes is catching them in some pots and taking them to the fish market. True, in the winter the water is rough, there are storms and strong currents… but we’ve all thought that’s not enough justify the retail price.Although I agree that what they ask for a lobster at certain times of the year, like during the Christmas holidays, is outrageous, a few weeks ago I had the chance to take part in an activity that was not strictly gastronomic and it changed the way I look at this crustacean and its commercial value. The first day of spring I accompanied technicians from the Instituto Galego de Formación en Acuicultura (IGaFA, Galician Institute of Training in Aquaculture) and folks from the O Canto da Balea (The Whale Song) project to release a thousand lobsters in the Os Miñarzos maritime reserve along the Costa da Morte.
It is worth stopping here for a moment to explain some of these things because I think it will help to understand the final price the lobsters reach in the marketplace. Reserva de Os Miñarzos is a pioneer project in Spain in which a small section of the A Coruña coast is monitored and undergoes a thorough control of what is caught. There are strict limits to the amount they can catch, their gear must be approved previously and there is constant surveillance along the coast and protected water areas and, of course, in everything that is unloaded at the local fish market.
As if this were not enough, each lobster that is released is identified with a system similar to the microchips used for dogs. The fish market and boats authorized to fish in the area have readers to identify, at the time of capture, the lobster’s age, when and where it was released, etc. We continue to add people and technology that affects the traceability of the product, as well as its price.The lobsters we released that morning arrived in water tanks from the Ría de Arousa, about 100 km. from there. There in the IGaFA, the lobsters are inseminated and controlled until they grow to a minimum size. They are then moved to trays, the same that are used in the Ría to cultivate mussels, where they are kept in cages for one year.
ONLY 20% LIVE
When they arrive to Os Miñarzos, the lobsters are only about the size of a pinky finger. Some have died along the way. Once there, the technicians and students don their neoprene suits –the water in the Costa da Morte in the month of March is no joke—and distribute them along hundreds of meters of beach and cliffs. They must be released manually, one by one, with a minimum of about three meters between each one. These are very aggressive, territorial animals that would devour each other if not separated this way.
This takes several hours. Several technicians even put on diving equipment and take some of the lobsters farther out to insure their dispersion and increase their chances of success. Chances of success, yes, because after all those months of work and care in finding a small cave or shelter in the rocks for each of the thousand, only 20% of those released will live to reach the commercial size.So we’re talking of around 200 lobsters that will live the few years they still need to be sold. After those three years of artificial insemination, controlled cultivation in captivity, growth in trays, transport, being released into their habitant, there is the work of the technicians, volunteers, fishermen, fish market workers, distributors and fishmongers. After all that, each one of the 200 survivors will sell for 15-18€ at the fishmongers. It’s easy to do the math. That’s about 3000-4000€ to pay for the work of all those people and the years of waiting.
Undoubtedly, in restaurants each lobster will sell for more than that. We have to add the profit margin of the restaurant and it’s staff. An arroz de bogavante (rice with lobster) for two people could cost between 30 and 50€. But knowing all the work there is behind it and the research and number of people involved in the process, who can say that’s expensive? Who can doubt where the difference in price with imported lobsters lies?
Photo: Jorge Guitián