Early shedders worry lobstermen

First published in the MLA Newsletter, June, 2012

When Maine lobstermen hauled their traps this past month, many were surprised to find a bountiful supply of shedders. Those soft-shell lobsters, also known as “new shell” lobsters, don’t usually appear in full force until June or July.

John Norton, president of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, estimates that between Pemaquid Point and Portland about 70 percent of the catch is “new shells” which are already being sold for split prices. “We started seeing those at least two weeks ago,” said Norton in mid-May. “The presence isn’t a surprise but the percentage in some areas is very high.”

A basket of shedders cooked and ready to pick. Susan Bayley photo

Lobster experts estimate that it takes six to seven years for a lobster to reach one pound in weight. During those years, it molts about 25 times. An adult male lobster sheds its shell twice each year and a female usually molts once each year, increasing its size by about twenty percent. It takes about six to eight weeks for the shell to harden.

One of the owners of Bayley’s Lobster Pound in Scarborough explained that not all shedders can be sold in the retail market because of their fragile condition. Those that can’t be transported must be processed rapidly, which lowers the price that lobstermen are paid.

Sue Bayley noted that it is important to recognize that 30 to 80 percent of shedders, depending on the area of harvest, are not even close to retail quality and must be cooked and processed fairly immediately. “In order to price the retail-quality lobsters, you have to take into account how much of the catch was not usable unless processed”, said Bayley. Vincent Clough, Bayley’s husband, added that the fact that shedders have less meat per pound also affects the price.

Although shedders bring a lower price, lobstermen still appreciate the bountiful supply of shedders this time of year because it contributes to an overall bigger catch. Some Maine lobstermen are launching their boats early because they don’t know how many more shedders there will be this season.

Research associate Professor at the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences, Richard Wahle, explained that the warmer water temperatures this past winter may account for the early molting. “July is usually the peak of shedder season in the midcoast area,” Wahle said. “We might have a second shedder season later in the year. Usually only a small proportion molts a second time. A larger proportion may molt a second time this year [because of warm water].” Wahle said that Rhode Island fishermen have also reported the early appearance of shedders in that area. “They’re appearing ahead of the game,” he said.

Maine Department of Marine Resources lobster biologist Carl Wilson said that the early appearance of shedders could make it difficult for fishermen to plan. He explained that lobstermen usually find shedders first in the shallow water and then follow them into deeper water. However, some of the shedders are already being hauled in from deep water. “The question mark,” he said, “is whether more shedders will show up later in the season.”

Vincent Clough with a basketful of shedders. Susan Bayley photo.

Although there has been an abundance of shedders in southern Maine, that’s not been the case throughout the state. Young’s Lobster Pound in Belfast reports that they have noticed shedders appearing earlier than usual but they have not seen the abundance found in Southern Maine.. “We’ve seen some a lot earlier but not many,” said Katrina Young. “They’re selling for a split price.”

Warren Polk, manager of the Corea Lobster Coop in Gouldsboro, reported that lobstermen aren’t finding many shedders in that area either. “We haven’t seen too many, maybe five percent,” said Polk. “I talk to lobster dealers in the area and they haven’t reported too many either.” Polk acknowledged that the ones that have been landed are two to three weeks earlier than in previous years and are already selling for a split price.

John Norton confirmed that in areas like Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde about 10 to 15 percent of the catch are shedders. Whether there will be a second molting season later this year remains a mystery. So, for now, some Maine lobstermen will venture out early to take advantage of this present opportunity.