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guide lobster ventralLobsters were once so plentiful in New England and Atlantic Canada they were harvested by hand and fed to prisoners and used as fertilizer. Indentured servants in Massachusetts had it put in their labor contracts that they could not be fed lobster more than three times a week. Of course those days are long gone and lobster has long been widely considered to be one of the most desired and expensive seafoods in the world.

The fishery for North American lobster, which is found in the western North Atlantic from Newfoundland to North Carolina, is the largest lobster fishery in the world. And while you can no longer harvest them by hand on rocky beaches, there is still plenty of lobster being caught these days.

The haul of lobsters by U.S. fishermen was a record 57,000 metric tons in 2011. Maine fishermen landed more than 80 percent of that catch. Lobstering north of the border is pretty good, too. In 2011, Canadian fishermen caught 62,000 metric tons of lobster, not far below their all time record of 67,000 metric tons, which they landed in 2010. Nova Scotia is the leading lobster-producing province with about 60 percent of the Canadian catch.

Canada and the U.S. manage their lobster fisheries quite differently. First, the Canadians have a smaller minimum size limit in their southern Gulf of St. Lawrence fishery, where lobsters with a carapace length of just 2.9 inches (about ¾ of a pound) can be caught. In the U.S., though, the minimum size limit is 3 ¼ inches, which yields a lobster between a pound and a pound and a quarter. The Canadians maintain that because the water temperature in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence is warmer lobster there mature sexually at a smaller size and they have a chance to reproduce.  Maine also has a limit on the maximum size of lobster. Any lobster with a carapace length of 5 inches (about 3 ½ pounds) must be returned to the water. Both countries also prohibit the retention of female “berried” lobsters that have extruded eggs outside their shell.

But the biggest difference is that the Canadians manage their lobster fishery by opening and closing fishing areas to minimize the catch of newly molted or “softshell” lobsters.  In the U.S., on the other hand, the lobster fishery is open year round. As a result, in the summer months, when most lobster in Maine is landed,  fishermen catch large numbers of softshell lobsters, which are also called shedders. After a lobster molts it feeds actively and its meat takes on extra water as it starts to fill out its new shell.

While the Maine lobster industry likes to extol the benefits of what they promote as “new shell” lobster (“You can usually break the shell open with your bare hands to access the tender meat inside.”), softshells are considered inferior to hardshell lobsters and sell for a significant discount. Depending on market conditions, a softshell lobster can be worth $2 or $3/lb. less to a fisherman than a hardshell.

Softshells, for example, are very weak and cannot be held out of water for any extended length of time. As a result, they cannot be shipped by airfreight. And consumers can feel short changed when they realize the meat doesn’t fill out the shell.  The meat yield from a softshell lobster is about 10 percent less than a hardshell lobster.

Some of the best buys on lobster are in May and June, when Canadian fishermen land about a third of their annual harvest. Prices are also usually lower in September and early October when both Canadian and U.S. fishermen are still landing good quantities and demand from summer coastal resorts has dropped off.

Product Forms
Although the largest American lobster ever landed was an impressive 77 pounds, the commercial catch is much smaller.  Lobsters are graded and sold by size with larger lobsters selling for more.

The typical grades and sizes are:
  Canners Under 1-pound
  Chix 1 – 1 ¼ lbs.
  Quarters 1 ¼ - 1 ½ lbs.
  Halves  1 ½ - 1 ¾ lbs.
    1 ¾ - 2 lbs.
    2 – 2 ½ lbs.
    2 ½ - 3 lbs.
  Small Jumbo 3-4 lbs.
  Medium Jumbo  4-6 lbs.
  Large Jumbo       6-10 lbs.