Accept the craziness of San Diego lobster fisherman

99% of what we catch we throw back

Shad Catarius

Marcus Medak with sculpin

Marcus Medak with sculpin

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.

Paul Hartman, deckhand

Paul Hartman, deckhand

“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.”

Medak has seen a lot of interesting things out at sea. From time to time he will come across panga boats used to transport illegal aliens. He has seen large bales of shrink-wrapped drugs floating in the water. Once he witnessed a pod of orca whales hunt down and kill a gray whale. His favorite sea-life sighting are sea turtles. They are a rarity but once or twice a season he’ll spot one.

Just outside of Del Mar a couple of fishermen in a skiff surprise Medak. Instead of setting an anchor, the pair tied up to one of Medak’s traps. As soon as he spots the faux pas, Medak steers his boat toward them and picks up speed. They quickly cut their line. “Assholes,” Medak huffs under his breath.

Pulling up alongside them, Medak shouts calmly over his engine, “These traps cost me $80 apiece. They aren’t strong enough to hold your boat.”

They nod and apologize.

“No wonder my traps have been moved around,” Medak says to Hartman as we drive off.

Nearby, Medak pulls another trap. This one has a tagged lobster in it from the Lobster Monitoring program. Medak measures it and records notes in a log before returning it to the ocean. The Lobster Monitoring Project is attempting to document changes in the population, size, habitat, and movement of the California spiny lobster inside and outside of local marine protected areas.

Over the past several years, Medak’s livelihood has been threatened by new underwater preserves locking him out of prime fishing areas. In 2012, the state implemented established new marine protected areas referred to as MPAs. Under the Marine Life Protection Act, most types of fishing is prohibited inside the areas, including lobster fishing.

The closure that affects Medak the most is the Swami’s State Marine Conservation Area. The preserve extends off the shore of Encinitas and covers approximately 12.65 square miles of former fishing grounds.

Medak’s boat pulls up to the reserve at around 10 a.m. The edge of the once-popular fishing spot is lined with lobster traps.

“It’s hard to say how much the closure has affected [lobster fishing]. I think it’s probably costing us somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent of what we’d catch for the entire year. That is a big hit on our income. We [lobster fishermen] tried to rally together. We went to a bunch of meetings. It was sort of unpleasant because it really felt like the fix was in and they really knew what they wanted and there was no changing it. We offered a couple of very reasonable compromises that followed the letter of the law that would have been biologically valuable, but they were not interested,” Medak explains in frustration.

Apart from the closures, Medak believes that recent beach-sand-replenishment projects have also affected his catch. In the fall of 2012, the Regional Beach Sand Project dredged 300,000 cubic yards of sand from the ocean’s floor and dumped it onto Moonlight Beach, Cardiff State Beach, and Batiquitos Beach. Medak, who isn’t normally a big talker, goes off on the beach-replenishment project, “Last year was my worst [lobster fishing] year by far because of the beach dredging. Dredging buries all the shallow reefs and the surf-grass habitat that is very important for lobsters. This year has been average; I think it probably would’ve been far better than average if the dredging hadn’t happened because warm water tends to be pretty good fishing. We didn’t see a massive population of lobsters. It’s ironic, I think, that beach replenishment is still allowed in all of the marine reserves yet they don’t let us fish them because they say we affect the habitat. There is no doubt whatsoever that beach-nourishment projects have a much higher impact on the near-shore habitat than what we do. It’s not even close. It’s very frustrating, and it’s not just the lobsters; if we see that dramatic of an effect on the lobsters, then it’s happening to all the invertebrates there — everything that lives in a crack or a crevice. A lot of invertebrates are very sensitive to materials suspended in the water column because their gills are delicate. It’s very common if you have a lot of turbidity in the water for it to kill a lot of animals. I am sure that is happening. It just hasn’t been documented.”

Medak would like to see lobster fishermen become more vocal on these issues.

“We aren’t very organized. I would really, at the very least, like to get some real monitoring going on. Right now we have no science. We can see it, but, you know, any observations that we make, if it’s not written down and published somewhere, they consider it anecdotal information. Unless they can see what is happening, they discount it.”

The tagging project is the only real documentation lobster fishermen have on how the preserve is affecting their catch.

Never name a boat after your wife

Shad Catarius

Shad Catarius

Lobster fisherman Shad Catarius

Shad Catarius talks about fishing for lobster off the coast of San Diego.

Shad Catarius talks about fishing for lobster off the coast of San Diego.

Back in San Diego, I meet-up with Shad Catarius and his wife Summer. Shad was one of the lobster fishermen involved in tagging over 21,000 lobsters from Palos Verdes to Point Loma for the Lobster Monitoring Project.

Thirty eight-year-old Shad launches his boat out of Dana Point and fishes all the way down to La Jolla. He purchased his lobster permit eight years ago after becoming disenchanted with his career as a mechanic at a San Diego–based dealership.

“That tagging contract basically fell in my lap. There weren’t too many guys that wanted to get involved. I didn’t make a dime doing it. I mean, I made expenses for the day but that is pretty much it. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the research. There’s not really any other fishery — next to sea urchins — that were as affected by these closures like the lobster fishery. Our fishery got completely clamped down upon. All of our prime habitat was closed due to the [marine protected area]. The way the law is written, if these [marine protected areas] don’t do what they say they are going to do, they have to change them. It doesn’t mean they will, but they are supposed to.”

Shad is uncertain whether the tagging project will do much to aid the lobster fishermen in getting the preserves reopened to them.

“It’s too soon to tell,” Shad says. “I mean, our stock assessment came back but they really don’t know how many lobsters are in the ocean to start with. The study was also about spillover; meaning, if we tag lobsters on the inside of the reserve and then tag lobsters on the outside of the reserve, where do these lobsters go? Are they really spilling over? Or, are they being pulled into the reserve? Up in Swami’s, it looks like the bigger lobsters are going into the reserve and pushing the shorts out. The population density up there stood out. We saw a lot more small lobsters on the outside of the reserve. Lobsters socialize by size. An eight-pound lobster is not going to live next to a one-pound lobster, because he is going to eat him.”

Shad lets out a deep sigh. Like Medak, he feels similarly frustrated. Shad has a considerable amount of envy for the old days of lobster fishing.

“In the old days, it was more about the love of going to work every day. Nowadays, because of closures, there is a bigger fight for access to the water. When I started out just eight years ago, we had this much area to fish,” Shad outstretches his arms. “Now we have this much,” he closes his hand together leaving a gap between his palms.

“And there are still the same amount of fishermen out there to compete with. Lobster fishing wasn’t on the government’s eye like it is now. Fishing wasn’t on the social deviant list of jobs. Commercial fishing is an old-style job. It’s a blue-collar hardworking job. It’s one of the few jobs that without a college degree you can go out there, put your head down, and get a hard day’s work in to support your family.”

Unlike Medak, Shad brings his boat home every night after work during lobster season. While it cuts down on some of the cost — Medak pays $270 a month to keep his boat at the Oceanside Harbor — Shad has to take his work home with him. Also, he works solo. He hires a deckhand for the first three days of the season but after that, he is on his own.

Explains his wife, Summer, “When Shad comes home from fishing, it’s dark and he’s not even really done yet because he has to clean the boat and then there’s paperwork. He has another two hours, minimum, of work to do.”

The first eight weeks of lobster season is hard on the Catarius family. It is the busiest time of the season. Shad leaves two hours before sunrise and doesn’t make it home until after sunset. He works seven days a week.

“The first eight weeks accounts for two-thirds of my entire catch for the season,” says Shad. “September and October suck for our two boys [ages 11 and 14].”

Summer says, “In September and October we are lucky if we get food on the table. It’s exhausting. I am a teacher, so those months are extremely hectic at work for me, too.”

With a nostalgic smile, Shad adds, “But summertime, summer is our pay-off. We have all summer together.”

Despite the hopefulness of a summer spent free of fishing and teaching, the rest of the year is stressful.

“Come Labor Day weekend, lobster fishermen are, like, ‘Uh-oh, I have 30 days until the start of the season to get everything done, get it right and get it stacked at the dock and ready to go in the ocean. I freak out about everything. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. You give a fisherman something that is unbreakable and they will break it. One day before the start of the season, I had my water pump go out, my brakes went out on my truck, and I had, like, three cars torn apart in the driveway.”

For the Catarius family there isn’t much room for failure.

Explains Shad, “The money to start this career came out of our house and our savings. We liquidated everything we owned to get this started.”

Shad Catarius’ lobster boat. Bought for $9000 on Craigslist but rebuilt for $80,000.

Shad Catarius’ lobster boat. Bought for $9000 on Craigslist but rebuilt for $80,000.

Catarius purchased his lobster permit for around $40,000. He bought his boat, a 23-foot Blackman skiff, off of Craigslist for $9000 but has since dumped about $80,000 into rebuilding it. Annually, his commercial fishing fees run around $1200 and his boat insurance sets him back about $3000 a year.

Summer admits that she second-guessed Shad’s career choice during his first year as a lobster fisherman.

“It was a lot. It scared me. It was hard to watch Shad be stressed out and to struggle and not get enough sleep. There is absolutely nothing I could do to help him except keep our household afloat and stay sane.”

After eight years, the Catarius household has grown accustomed to those crazy first weeks. Summer sets aside money so that she and the kids can eat out once a week. She accepts help from family and friends. Most of all, she accepts the craziness of the season and looks forward to March, when it ends.

“It flows better now. That first year, it was chaos. It was freaking Armageddon chaos, because we had no concept of what it would be like. We put everything we had into this basket. It wasn’t until week six or eight when I went and put all the checks in the bank that we went from zero to solvent.”

Shad lets out a laugh and smiles before continuing, “That year, some lady at the bank thought I was homeless.”

Summer gasps. Unfazed, Shad continues, “I was sitting outside the bank organizing a stack of checks I was about to deposit when an elderly woman tried to give me five dollars. I said, ‘Ma’am, I don’t need this,’ and she said, ‘Are you sure?’”

“That is so embarrassing!” Summer winces.

“But, you know, my hair wasn’t cut, I hadn’t shaved.”

“It’s pretty bad in the beginning of the season. I mean, his fishing clothes have holes in them. They are pretty tattered,” adds Summer.

“Fishermen are pretty frugal. I mean, half the time we use zip-ties to keep our pants up.”

Summer pauses for a moment and adds, “It’s good for our boys to see that dad works really hard. He’s making a living but he is working really, really hard.”

Adds Shad with a nod, “In our family, we have Summer’s college degree and my lack thereof. Neither one of them is the wrong way to do it. We just had a blow up with our 14-year-old about this.”

Explains Summer, “Our oldest son is like me. The idea of waking up early and dealing with fish guts — there is no way I would ever do that. Send me to college. It’s good for him to see this.If he isn’t going to take school seriously, that’s fine. I tell him, ‘You can make a living, but this is what you will be doing, and I don’t see you wanting to work that hard.’”

Born and raised in Clairemont, Shad grew up on the water.

“When I was a kid, my world revolved around the ocean. My dad was an extremely aggressive waterman. He spent more time in the water than he did with his family. If he wasn’t at work, he was diving or surfing. We were a typical blue-collar family. We didn’t have a lot of extra money roaming around. My dad dove to put food on the table. He did that three to four nights a week. I grew up around a lot of San Diego’s Bottom Scratchers.”

Shad’s lobster fishing vessel, McGee Marie, was named in honor of Jack Prodanovich, one of the founders of the San Diego Bottom Scratchers free-diving club.

“Jack Prodanovich was an old friend of mine. When I was deciding whether or not to get into lobster fishing, he and I sat down. I wanted to know, am I doing the right thing? He was 90 years old at the time. He had been in the water since time began, as far as I was concerned. He was one of the few guys still alive that I looked up to. I wanted his opinion before I was going to do it. He said, ‘That’s the one fishery I would want to be a fisherman in, and if there is anyone that could make it work, you will.’ It meant a lot. He lived in Point Loma, so he was super excited because I would be driving past his house on the way home. I could come by and tell him war stories. He died that year while I was still building the boat. Every time I walked out of his house he would tell me, ‘You’re a good man, McGee.’” (A catchline from 1930s radio show Fibber McGee and Molly.) “I wanted some way to remember him, so that’s how my boat came to be the McGee Marie.”

Curious, I ask, “So, where does the name Marie come from if your wife’s name is Summer?”

Shad looks at his wife and with a sly, sideways, smile says, “Fishermen have the tendency to change wives. Bottom line, you should never name your boat after your wife’s first name. Marie is her middle name.”

I don’t eat them

It is late afternoon and Medak is still pulling traps. He turns to me and says, “I hope it wasn’t your turn to make dinner because you aren’t going to be home.”

At around 2 p.m., Medak glimpses down into the bin holding his collection of caught lobsters and says, “Looks like about 40 pounds. I was hoping for 50. I think we’ll get some more, though.”

I ask him how often he feasts on lobster.

“I don’t eat them. They are far too valuable.”

Medak explains that he splurges on the California spinys once a year. During the first couple of days of the season, his dad volunteers his time as a deckhand. In payment, Medak cooks up a lobster feast for his family.

“There is a lot of money on the line those first couple of days. I usually bring out two deckhands. It’s exciting but stressful. I mean, if you were to screw up and put your boat out of commission during those first couple of weeks you’d be out over $30,000,” Medak remarks.

Despite the stress and long hours, Medak prefers the start of the season, when the days are long and fast-paced.

“I like it better when we are catching more. You have to work harder but it’s more exciting. I don’t mind hard work.”

Some people do mind hard work. At the start of the season, Medak hired a deck hand much younger than the 60-something Hartman.

“I hired a 20-year-old, and he quit after a half day, and all we were doing was moving gear from the yard. Some of my traps are about 60 pounds, but still, I am twice his age. It was pathetic. He snuck off and sent me a text message saying it was too hard. Paul has worked out really well. I like having him on the boat,” Medak adds.

Like Shad Catarius, Medak got into the lobster business eight years ago. He bought his permit for around $40,000 and his boat, a 32-foot BHM, for $55,000. He has about 400 traps that set him back around $80 a piece. In total, Medak estimates his initial investment was about $130,000. Nowadays, lobster permits sell for upwards of $115,000.

“It’s a big investment to get into now. It’s not necessarily super easy to get your investment back. It took me a couple of years to get my investment back. When I started, the price of lobster wasn’t nearly as high as it is now, but we were catching a little bit more because we had more area, But, you know, lobsters were 9, 10, 11 dollars a pound and right now it’s 25 dollars.”

After graduating from Humboldt State University with a bachelor’s degree in marine fisheries, Medak worked as a marine biologist for California Fish and Game. He became increasingly restless sitting behind a desk. He realized that spending all of his time behind a computer was not the way he envisioned his life. So, he quit. When he was 30, he bought a sport-fishing boat. It was an easy transition for Medak, who has been interested in fishing and marine biology since childhood. Growing up in Encinitas, he spent most days fishing at the beach. When he was old enough, he began assisting sport fishermen on their boats. They allowed him to fish for free in exchange for labor.

“It was a fairly easy decision. I was making way more money fishing than working for Fish and Game,” Medak explains, “When my kids were small, I would just take the winter and spring off from sport-fishing and do the whole take the kids to school and home thing. Once they started elementary school and were busy more...you know, sport-fishing started getting tougher. You can’t make a real living on it. It’s a short season. It’s four months. I mean, how many jobs can you work four months?”

Catarius releasing a newly baited trap

Catarius releasing a newly baited trap

So, four years later, he bought a lobster license.

“It was scary when I first did it. It was a lot of debt to take on. A lot. My wife has a stable government job with Fish and Game. Some years, lobster fishing isn’t so good, but, you know, it balances out.”

Medak says his average take from a lobster season ranges between $50,000 and $60,000. “This year has been pretty average,” Medak says, “My first year, I got really lucky. The weather was benign and the fishing was good. I didn’t have a lot of competition. There weren’t a lot of guys fishing up in North County. I had it pretty much all to myself.”

The lobster fishery is a closed fishery: in total, there are only 140 transferable permits. The only way to get in is to wait for some to retire or give up. Most San Diego–based lobster fishermen stick to the Point Loma–La Jolla area. Over the past several years a new crop of lobster fishermen have entered the North County scene.

“They are tough competition. Right now there are only seven of us that fish out of Oceanside. There are a lot more guys down in San Diego.”

Because of the dredging and the marine protected area, last season was particularly rough. Medak left North County and fished out of San Diego.

“I fished out of Point Loma because the fishing was so terrible in North County. The guys down there weren’t too stoked, but, you know, whatever.” Medak shrugs and adds, “Some guys do better out of San Diego than North County, but there is a lot more competition down there. But there is also more lobster habitat in San Diego. In North County we’ve got a lot more travel time than the guys who fish out of San Diego. They go out of the harbor and they’re right there on the fishing ground. In North County, we burn more fuel and typically have longer days because it takes a lot more time to get into the harbor after we are done. But I would say definitely, the first week of the season the fishing up here is better, typically.”

It is 4:30 when Medak begins to head back to the harbor. The sun is dipping down in the sky. Hartman takes a hose to the deck. Fish guts coat our rubber boots.

Medak points out mountains to the northeast.

“Sometimes, you can see snow on them. It’s beautiful.”

Hartman shakes his head in disagreement, “When I see snow, even that far away, I am like one of these lobsters in a boiling pot; I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Sea lions crush lobster cages to get to the bait inside

Sea lions crush lobster cages to get to the bait inside

As the sun begins its descent, the sea becomes more active. It shimmers like the top of an abalone shell. Several sea lions swim past. Sea lions have broken one too many of Medak’s traps for him to feel any sort of happy sentiment toward them. When I spot a pod of dolphins swimming in the boat’s wake, I point them out to the two men.

Hartman shrugs. Medak adds, “They do that all the time.”

Sensing my disappointment over their lack of enthusiasm, Medak points down at the ocean’s glassy surface. “See all those little dots?” I look down at what appears to be rain drops rippling the surface of the ocean. I strain my eyes. As they adjust, I am able make out hundreds of tiny red creatures.

“Those are red crabs,” Medak remarks with a smile, “It’s an interesting thing. We will go for years without seeing hardly any of them up here. Most of the time they are further south, but we’ve got real warm water up here right now.”

I make out something bigger in the distance. It is the fluke of a gray whale slinking back down into the ocean. With a faint smile, Medak says, “We see whales nearly every day. You can’t get a nicer workplace. We are only a half mile from town but it feels like we are away from civilization. That’s why I like fishing. It’s something different every day. You never know exactly what is going to happen. It’s hard work, but it doesn’t get old”

Back at the harbor, a lobster buyer is waiting. Medak sells 41 lobsters weighing in at 59 pounds bringing in $1475 for the day.

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I live in the Pacific Northwest so we often have crab traps, not lobster traps on the Oregon/Washington Coast. I've been a diver since summer, 1966 (Chu Lai, Viet Nam), and I have never seen a diver take a crab from a trap. I'm saddened to learn Mr. Medak observed that, but there are lowlifes and lazy parasites in almost every demographic. As divers, we have the mobility and the arms-length access to reach into the jetties or between the rocks and take our own; however, if a diver catches Dungeness crab and a nearby crabber comes up with an empty trap, you can see the grounds for suspicion and presupposition. If a personal standard or code of conduct isn't sufficient to keep a diver from stealing lobster or crab from traps, peer pressure should prevent such pilferage. We operate underwater; I am often accused by fishermen of "scaring the fish away", and that evidences ignorance because rockfish and other marine life are not concerned with my approach or presence. They swim around me. They're in their 3-dimensional element. But a fisherman who has caught nothing will assume the diver's presence or interference is the problem. The best I can do is invite them to join us so they can see how it works, but we can reach what we want without having to steal from traps. If we're catching crab/lobster and they're not, I'd say it's time to qualify as a diver and submerge with us to improve their catch.

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