The Maine soft-shell lobster has an identity crisis.
It’s a shedder. It’s a new shell. It’s a molter.
Would a better name and a catchy jingle enhance its image?
The state’s Lobster Advisory Council, as part of a broader initiative to rebrand Maine lobster to increase demand and boost prices, is considering recasting the name of the soft-shell lobster as something more … attractive.
“Not that many people have nice things to say about soft-shells,” John Sauve, a consultant for the Lobster Advisory Council and president of the Food and Wellness Group in Portland, said last week at a meeting of lobstermen.
Soft-shells are lobsters that have molted recently, shedding their old hard shells so they can grow into new, larger shells. They have less meat per pound than hard-shells, but that meat is perceived as more tender and sweet. And they’re easier to crack and eat.
So what’s so bad?
For Maine’s lobster industry, whose catch was worth more than $331 million last year, the problem is that soft-shells fetch lower prices because they have less meat and they’re too fragile to pack and ship long distances.
The price difference is significant. For example, Hannaford’s price Monday for hard-shells as big as a pound and a quarter was $8.99 a pound. For soft-shells the same size, the price was $5.99 a pound.
And soft-shells account for the bulk of the lobsters caught off Maine.
“Seventy percent of our harvest is soft-shell,” Sauve said. “We need to market them as quality. It’s not smart to categorize them as inferior. We need to turn the attributes into a positive — they’re sweeter, they’re easier to eat. Whether you call it ‘easy shell’ or ‘summer shell,’ it’s what you harvest.”
The concept of rebranding seafood with catchier and more appealing names is not new.
Toothfish became known as Chilean sea bass, even though it has only a tenuous relationship to Chile or sea bass. And mahi mahi is easier to swallow than dolphinfish, which brings to mind Flipper.
Monkfish sounds better than goosefish. King mackerel was originally known as hogfish, and lake whitefish had the unfortunate name gizzard fish. Then there’s slimehead fish, which thankfully got an upgrade to orange roughy.
But what to do about the poor soft-shell Homarus americanus?
“Hard-shells, people believe to have some advantage,” Sauve said. “The Canadians who harvest hard-shells market them as superior. We can’t allow that to occur. … What you call it is just part of the overall branding process.”
Rick DiBiase, who works in the warehouse at Harbor Fish Market in Portland, said, “If you change the name, it can’t make prices worse.”
His suggestion? “Sweet shell.”
“I don’t care what you call them, you have to do an explanation for tourists every time,” said Nick Alfiero, an owner of Harbor Fish Market. “The name ‘summer lobster’ and ‘winter lobster’ is just as confusing. It will still require an education for customers.”
Maine, which landed more than 103 million pounds last year, is the nation’s largest lobster producer, so it would hold sway in renaming the soft-shell lobster. Other markets would likely follow suit.
Standardizing the name might help with the education process, but Alfiero doubts it would help sales. “We’ll continue calling them what we’ve been calling them for 40 years,” he said.
Melissa Bouchard, executive chef at DiMillo’s Restaurant in Portland, said she serves exclusively hard-shell lobsters.
“If a customer comes in and gets a soft-shelled lobster, it comes flying right back to us,” Bouchard said. “People feel taken. With soft-shell, people don’t feel they’re getting your bang for your buck. We never want to take advantage of anyone for their lack of knowledge.”
Jeff Porch, whose family has owned the Lobster Shack at Two Lights for four generations, said changing the name of soft-shells would just be confusing for customers. Two Lights serves bigger lobsters when it serves soft-shells, to offset the difference in meat per pound.
“I don’t think they have a negative image. We haven’t had any complaints,” he said.
When asked about the possible renaming of soft-shells, Porch just laughed.
“This is hysterical. I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he said. “They’ll put a committee together for anything.”
Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]