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Early arrival of soft-shell lobsters perplexes Maine lobster industry

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Early arrival of soft-shell lobsters perplexes Maine lobster industry

SCARBOROUGH — The early arrival of soft-shell lobsters along the southern Maine coast has industry insiders scratching their heads about what the unusual spring landings mean for the rest of the season.

At Pine Point, third-generation Scarborough lobsterman Dennis Violette, pulled two big crates full of lobster from his early season catch and picked one out; its shell folded like paper under his hand.

"Today we got probably 60, 65 percent soft-shells," Violette said. "That's not the norm."

Soft-shells, or "shedders," have been landing on southern Maine docks for about a month. They don't normally show up in force until sometime in mid-June or early July, said Tim Staples, manager of the Pine Point Fisherman's Co-Op. He said some harvesters are bringing in nothing but soft-shells.

Lobsters grow by casting off their exoskeletons and replacing them with newer, bigger ones. After shedding, the lobster doesn't quite fill out its new body, like a child wearing hand-me-downs that are a little too big. It takes time for the lobster to fill out and for its shell to harden.

Soft-shell lobsters have less meat per pound and don't ship well because of their delicate exteriors. Lobstermen get a lower price from wholesalers, who in turn charge consumers less for soft- or new-shelled lobsters than for ones with sturdy hard shells. 

Violette and other lobster industry insiders – wholesalers, retailers, researchers and policy experts – say they've never seen such an early shed, and are unsure what it could mean for the rest of the season.

"We're dealing with something that's never happened in the historical memory of the lobster industry, with the soft-shells coming this early," said Matt McAleney, general manager of New Meadows Lobster, a Portland wholesaler.

McAleney said it's not as simple an equation as "more shedders caught now means fewer hard-shells caught later." There are a lot of variables, he said, and no one can predict what such an early shed means because it's unprecedented.

"There's so many different factors," he said. "Have there been more soft-shells than we've seen in recent memory? Absolutely. Do we know what means in the future? We have no idea. ... I have one lobsterman who is 90 years old, and he's never seen this. You just don't know."

McAleney speculated the mild winter caused the early shed. Many factors determine when a lobster will shed, including food supply, availability of shelter and salinity, but temperature is by far the most important. Warmer water means its time to molt. 

"The lobsters in their little caves don't have calendars," McAleney said. "They go by the temperature and how it feels."

Carl Wilson, a marine research scientist and lead lobster biologist with the state Department of Marine Resources, said the early arrival of shedders could just be an early kick-off to the season. But, it could also signify a change in the normal lobstering schedule.

Maine's lobster catch is about 80-85 percent soft-shell, he said. In a normal year, there's a kind of shedding curve: The shed starts in shallow depths and kicks off with a boom before spreading into deeper water. Lobstermen follow the molt as it moves through deeper water because new-shell lobster are ravenous, and therefore easier to bait and catch.

The early shed could just mean an early start to the season, he said, noting that Downeast Maine isn't reporting the same early shed as the southern coast and Casco Bay. Or, he said, it could might mean a trickled molt, with the shed happening slowly, but steadily throughout the summer season.

"I wonder if we're going to see that very distinct, marked timing of the shed," he said. "Will it be this rolling, continuous, slow-molting process, or will it be – whamo – right into soft-shelled lobsters coast wide?"

Wilson said that if the season comes without a big shedding boom, it could mean confusion and volatility in the industry, even if the total volume caught is about average.

"For the harvesters, it'll be harder for them to gauge where their traps should be and timing of those traps. A trickled molt could alter an individual fisherman's perspective, but that would alter the dealers' and the processors' perspective as well."

Wilson and the others said it's hard to predict the season this early because April and May are two of the weakest months in Maine's lobster industry. There aren't many fishermen on the water yet, and the landings are nothing compared to the big-catch months of August and September. (For example, in May 2010, 2.5 million pounds of lobster were caught; in August 2010, it was 20.3 million.)

McAleney, the manager at New Meadows Lobster, said that until there's reason to do otherwise, he'll happily take the early shed.

"For the fishermen who are fishing right now, this is a bonus," he said. "They don't usually catch that many lobster this time of year. Now they're catching them."

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.