From January to spring is a poor time of year to order a shipment of lobster. It’s too cold. Lobsters don’t crawl until the water is 42 degrees F. on the ocean bottom and 46 degrees F. at the surface. By February, pretty much everyone has taken up his gear and is dubbing around in his workshop, making repairs and getting ready for the next season, which starts in mid-April if there’s a week of 40- to 50-degree weather. Otherwise fishermen will hold off until May.

The lobsters that are used to fill the few orders from Valentine’s Day until Mother’s Day come from Maine or Canadian holding systems, and the cost per pound is more than the average person cares to pay. Canadian Maritime as well as a few U.S. fishermen in Massachusetts and Rhode Island fish in winter, but the few lobsters the Americans land go straight to the fresh market and can’t possibly fill it. Canadian fishermen produce enough lobster to sell to the fresh as well as the “held” market. Therefore, if a retail customer orders lobster from a dealer from Massachusetts to Florida to California, what he or she will get may be from Maine or from Canada, and probably has been held for some time. In any case what is generally referred to as a Maine lobster, homarus Americanus, is not necessarily from the waters off the state of Maine, but a lobster from the Gulf of Maine, a body of water that extends from the Bay of Fundy to Long Island Sound.

Maine dealers mostly hold their lobsters in tidal pounds, which are coves they can close off, that hold from 20,000 to 250,000 lbs. of lobsters. They buy shedders, variously called soft shells or new shells — lobsters that molted in June or July.

Lobsters protect their delicate, sweet meat by covering it with a hard, sharp, barbed shell. But the shell can’t stretch to accommodate growth, so periodically — in Maine, it’s usually in early summer and sometimes in the fall — the lobster sheds its shell when it outgrows it, much the way children outgrow their shoes.

When the lobster emerges from protective hiding after molting, its new shell is soft. Fishermen and dealers describe very soft new shells as “junk,” “jellies,” and “paper bags.” Sometimes the shells are so delicate they cannot take the rubber bands fishermen put on the claws to prevent being nipped. There is a moral issue to the landing of such weak lobsters: chances are, they won’t survive long. In any case, they can’t survive being shipped. Many lobstermen won’t bring them ashore.

Poundkeepers, usually lobstermen who also buy from other lobstermen to make up their inventory, buy when there’s a glut of soft-shelled lobsters, or shedders and when the boat price, the price dealers pay fishermen, is under $3/lb. They put the lobsters in their tidal pounds and feed them. Over time the shell hardens up and, by February, when practically no one is fishing in Maine, which means the price has risen — the lobster business operates on supply and demand — the poundkeepers begin selling their product.

Seven years ago, most poundkeepers waited to sell their inventory until the boat price rose to $5/lb. In the past few years they waited until the boat price got as high as $6/lb., others held out until it hit $7/lb. The price poundkeepers sell for is called the “dam price” because the coves where they keep their lobsters are closed by damming. This past fall, because poundkeepers had to pay a boat price of $3.50 to $4.50/lb. for their lobster, most waited to sell until it hit $7/lb. and one brave soul waited to sell until the boat price rose to an almost unprecedented $8.25/lb.

Holding lobster is always a gamble. Besides the uncertainty of supply and demand, there’s always the question of the animal’s health.

Poundkeepers have learned to test lobsters for their blood protein or serum levels. A healthy lobster should have a blood protein level of 11 or 12 percent for it to have a good shelf life. If the blood serum level is lower than eight percent, a shipped lobster may not be alive on arrival, in which case the sender will have to make it up to the buyer. Weak lobsters aren’t worth shipping. In fact, it’s not worth it to ship shedders, and no one interviewed for this article ships anything but hard shell lobsters.

Tanked, Tubed or Trayed

Occasionally in Maine, but more frequently in the Canadian Maritimes, people in the lobster industry hold lobsters in tanks, tubes and trays.

Tank houses are like big indoor swimming pools. Tubes are plastic pvc tubes, such as those used by plumbers, cut to the size of a lobster to hold it in a tank and keep it from going about its cannibalistic business. Trays hold individual lobsters in much the same way. Because, for the most part there is no practical way to feed tanked, tubed and trayed lobsters, they have a shelf life of only two to three weeks because after that, the lobster starts to deteriorate. One Canadian, though, has come up with an inventive method for feeding his held lobsters. He keeps them in cages within a tank, drains the tank, sticks bait in each cage, and refills the tank. He’s holding his lobsters longer and keeping their blood serum levels high, which means his shipped lobster will arrive in good health and ready for a fight.

Pounded lobster can be held for as long as six months depending on the quality of care and feeding. The elephant in the parlor of held inventory is lobster mortality, or as it’s called in the business, “shrinkage.” The best poundkeepers can hope for is a shrinkage rate of one to two percent; five percent is acceptable, but in a bad year a poundkeeper can lose 20 to 30 percent of his stock.

This year Maine dealers say they’re pleased with the quality of the tubed lobster they’ve bought from Canada. Pounded lobster has been good, too, but buyers should understand that lobsters that have spent from October through March sitting on the bottom of a tidal pound can end up mossy-backed and muddy-tasting. You might want to wait till spring.