Why Pearl Lobsters Are So Expensive
Narrator: This lobster is so valuable that people try to smuggle its larvae across international waters. The ornate tropical rock lobster, or the pearl lobster, as it’s better known, can cost nearly $100 a kilogram, making it six times as expensive as other popular varieties, like Maine lobsters. The colorful crustacean is one of the rarest and priciest lobsters you can find. But what makes the pearl lobster so special? And why exactly is it so expensive?
Pearl lobsters are found throughout the Indian Ocean and west Pacific, but the waters around Indonesia are where their largest communities exist. They’re known for their blue-green shells, rainbow-colored spots, and extra-long antennae. Pearl lobsters are also meatier and sweeter than other lobsters. In Ekas Bay, Indonesia, they’re considered a popular delicacy and sold for a hefty profit.
Abdul Kasim: It’s the taste that makes this lobster more popular than other lobsters. It tastes a bit sweet and so savory, tasty.
Narrator: Abdul Kasim has been fishing for lobsters for 29 years. Whenever it’s not too windy, he takes his boat to rocky locations that could be home to pearl lobsters.
Abdul Kasim: We learned how to catch these lobsters from our parents from generation to generation. The hardest peart is when we determine the location. Sometimes, it turns out that at the location we chose, the lobsters have run out. Then we have to find a new location to catch the lobster.
Narrator: The fishers leave their nets out overnight and return in the morning. They also catch sand lobsters, but pearl lobsters are worth a lot more.
Abdul Kasim: For instance, if the pearl lobster costs 1 million rupiah [$66], for comparison, the sand lobster will cost 500,000 rupiah at best. From January to February, its costs up to 1.5 million rupiah per kilogram for the wild ones, whereas for the rest of the year, it may cost between 1 million rupiah and 1.15 million rupiah.
Narrator: Any lobsters that are large enough to be sold are brought to a seller. Due to government regulations, pearl lobsters that weigh less than 200 grams must be brought to a breeder. Breeders like Murdim raise pearl lobsters in captivity. This method ensures a more reliable supply of lobsters.
Murdim: I am interested in cultivating lobsters because the yield is very supportive for our families. As for my family, it provides money for my children’s education and other needs.
Narrator: But keeping them healthy is no easy feat. The lobster larvae, or seeds, as they’re called, are placed in nets that float directly in the ocean, exposed to natural elements. Murdim takes his boat out to feed the lobsters every day. It takes 18 months to fully breed pearl-lobster seeds.
Murdim: It’s rather difficult to cultivate pearl lobster, because they are vulnerable and susceptible to disease. Also, their seeds are too expensive.
Narrator: The lobsters are also often attacked by puffer fish and barracudas, who eat their legs. If a lobster loses two legs from the same side, it’s considered defective and can’t be sold.
Murdim: What we usually do is we release 50 lobsters – we release the 50-gram ones – 50 lobsters from one fishnet catch. We eventually harvest around 40 lobsters. The mortality rate is around 10%.
Narrator: The surviving lobsters will grow from 50 grams to the preferred selling weight of 500 grams. To help protect their lobsters, breeders check on the nets throughout the week and repair any damage. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it, since pearl lobsters have become one of the most valuable resources at Indonesian fisheries.
To help strengthen the country’s lobster-farming industry, the Indonesian government has banned the export of all lobster larvae. This measure is also meant to protect its wild lobster populations. However, theft and international smuggling attempts of Indonesia’s lobster larvae have not stopped. Back in autumn 2022, authorities caught smugglers transporting $2.2 million worth of lobster larvae. The Indonesian government estimates that the country lost more than $64 million in revenue to illegal exports in 2019.
The demand for Indonesian lobsters, particularly pearl lobsters, is very high in countries like Singapore, China, and Vietnam. Pearl lobsters aren’t even always available in Indonesia.
Mr. Rofik: Not all sellers sell pearl lobsters. First of all, it’s good quality. It’s also the most expensive, above average. Pearl-lobster buyers are usually visitors, both domestic and foreign visitors.
Narrator: Many restaurants and hotels also buy pearl lobsters, driving up the demand and prices. The time of year impacts how expensive a pearl lobster will be as well. Lobsters are more expensive in January and February, because of all the Chinese New Year celebrations. Prices are also higher from August to September, when international tourists come to visit. During these months, captive pearl lobsters sell for around $50 per kilogram, and wild pearl lobsters can sell for as much as $75 per kilogram. Wild pearl lobsters are always more expensive because they tend to be larger than their captive counterparts. They also weigh more, even when they’re the same size, so there’s more meat to enjoy.
Mr. Mirza: I prefer pearl lobster over Pakistani lobster and others. Also, it’s worth the price, for the taste of the pearl lobster itself. All lobsters are essentially the same. But for me, maybe, the pearl lobster is more tender and tasty.
Narrator: Despite the extravagant cost, one of the most popular ways to eat pearl lobster is grilling it at a local outdoor restaurant.
Mr. Mirza: I consume pearl lobster quite frequently, once or maybe twice a month. I usually bring it to the restaurant to be grilled, or I take it home to be fried with my own seasonings. Pearl lobster has a tender texture in the mouth. The meat is also thicker and has a slightly sweet taste.
Narrator: But despite pearl lobster’s popularity in Indonesia and throughout Asia, its price has actually fallen over the years. And its fluctuating value is concerning for the people whose livelihoods depend on it.
Abdul Kasim: Our hope as lobster fishermen here is for the government to stabilize the price. Here, we only need the price to be stabilized. Don’t let the price fall and drop too low, because we also need money that is sufficient to fulfill all of our family needs.