In his 30 years of studying lobsters, Robert Bayer has never seen this happen before.
Warmer water temperatures caused lobsters to prematurely shed their hard shells in late April -- about six weeks before they usually do every season. Lobstermen and food businesses are still feeling the impact of the surplus of "shedders."
Bayer, the executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, said Maine lobstermen usually expect to start seeing the soft-shell lobsters in late June.
"Now you have supply issues. The supply has far exceeded the demand, so lobster prices are low," he said. "The largest catches statewide are usually in August, September and October."
Bayer said there are two factors that determine when a lobster sheds its hard shell to grow. One is the water temperature, which in May mimicked July-like temperatures ranging at nearly 60 degrees F, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Average May water temperatures in Maine are usually between 47-51 degrees.
Retailers have been selling large lobsters as cheap as $4 per pound. In a state where lobsters account for about 70 percent of the seafood industry, a surplus this early in the season "is not supposed to happen," said Pete McAleney, owner of the New Meadows Lobster distributor and president of the Maine Import-Export Lobster Dealers Association.
With a large surplus of lobsters, retailers and store owners were forced to drop prices. Here, Bob Coppersmith updates the board at Dock's Seafood Restaurant in South Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
"Mother Nature played a real trick this year," McAleney said. "All of a sudden these shredders hit and we aren't used to them coming this early in the year."
While frozen lobster tails are usually in high demand in the national market, McAleney said the soft-shelled lobsters "don't travel well," so freezing the extra crustaceans won't help much.
"You can only send them so far, and Maine people already had their feed of lobsters," McAleney said.
He added that it's the second year in a row where Maine has seen a high supply of lobster that results in low prices that hurt the lobstermen and retailers, both hard and soft shells included.
This could be the result of overfishing, McAleney said. With less cod and other sea life that prey on lobsters, they no longer have a natural enemy.
In 2005, the average price per pound paid to lobstermen was $4.63. Last year, a record 104 million pounds of lobster were caught in Maine, but because of the high supply and low demand, the price per pound dropped to $3.19.
McAleney hopes that as tourist season kicks in, people will arrive in Maine with a large lobster appetite.
"We have all these lobsters with nobody to eat them," he said.