Saturday, March 8, 2014
CAPE ELIZABETH — Lincoln Jordan pulled a rectangular wire basket from a display tank inside his family's vegetable stand at Alewive's Brook Farm on Wednesday morning.
Soft-shell lobsters, like the one at left at New Meadows Lobster in Portland on Wednesday, generally aren’t harvested in great numbers until June or early July.
Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Nick Alfiero of Harbor Fish Market in Portland, said Wednesday that the abundance of soft-shell lobster has little effect on his business.
• Considered a local delicacy because it doesn’t ship well.
• Less meat than its hard-shell counterpart, but many believe it to be sweeter and more tender.
• Unlike its counterpart, it can survive the rigors of shipping.
• Generally priced higher than soft-shell, and price often climbs as the crustacean’s size increases.
"It usually looks like this," he said, as half a dozen soft-shell lobsters glistened orange and brownish-black in the bottom of the dripping basket.
"But this morning, these were filled to the top," he said, gesturing toward a row of five similar baskets. "I've never seen this many culls this time of year for soft shell."
Steve Train, a lobsterman on Long Island, returned to hauling traps last week after taking a month off while he switched boats.
"We're definitely seeing more than I usually see this time of year," he said of the soft-shell lobsters, also called shedders, which normally don't start showing up in abundance until June or early July. "You don't expect to get those shedders (in May)."
Local retailers started splitting prices -- lower for soft shells and higher for hard shells -- in late April and early May.
"Nobody's ever seen the prices split so early," said Jody Jordan, Lincoln's father, standing behind bins of turnips, potatoes and parsnips at Wednesday's farmers market in Portland's Monument Square. "Usually, there's just one price until the middle of June."
The elder Jordan, who will turn 61 in October, started fishing for lobsters when he was 12. He said the lobsters he catches near the shore are generally hard-shelled, because the shallower water turns colder in winter, even one as mild as the one Maine just experienced.
"But offshore, in 200 or 300 feet of water, the catch is almost 90 percent soft-shell lobsters when it should be the other way around this time of year," he said.
Data on landings for 2012 isn't yet available, said Carl Wilson, lead lobster biologist for the state Department of Marine Resources. Still, a look at recent years reveals that the spring lobster season is dwarfed by that of the summer and early fall.
The total catch in March, April and May was 4.12 percent of the 2009 total, 4.21 of the 2010 total and 3.66 of the 2011 total, which surpassed 100 million pounds for the first time.
"So I don't think we're talking about a huge volume at this point," Wilson said. "Even if it is a strange spring, it doesn't predict what's going to happen for the total landings of the year."
Nick Alfiero, proprietor of Portland's Harbor Fish Market, said the appearance of soft shells this early is unusual, but has little impact on his business.
"If we were flooded and the lobsters were jumping out of the tanks and we were up there at $3.99 (a pound) trying to get rid of them, it would be a story," he said. "But they're coming in small quantities."
Per-pound prices at Harbor Fish Market on Wednesday were $6.99 for soft shells, $8.99 for smaller hard shells and $10.99 for medium-sized hard shells. Only the hard-shell lobsters can survive the rigors of shipping, so soft shells are strictly a local delicacy.
Steve DiMillo Sr. of DiMillo's On the Water restaurant buys only hard shells because "we want to ensure there's plenty of meat in the lobsters," he said.
Although the soft-shell lobsters contain more water and less meat, most of the lobstermen and retailers interviewed Wednesday said the meat tastes sweeter and is more tender.
And chefs like David Turin of David's Restaurant in Portland and Chris Barrett of the Azure Cafe in Freeport said picking the cooked meat for use in ravioli, lobster rolls or other dishes is much easier with soft shells.
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Peter McAleney of New Meadows Lobster in Portland says ocean currents and a dearth of nor’easters have contributed to warmer ocean temperatures in parts of the Gulf of Maine.