A lobster from Beal's Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor gets ready to be shipped to a customer. Direct shipping to has taken off since the start of the pandemic and the holiday season is the busiest time of year for the growing side of the industry. Credit: Courtesy of Beal's Lobster Pier

Though the summer season has faded and been replaced by cold and snow, some Maine lobster piers are still bustling, trying to stay on top of orders of lobster that will be shipped sometimes thousands of miles directly to customers in time for New Year’s Eve.  

This dock-to-door model, in which piers and pounds ship live lobsters and lobster roll kits straight to consumers, usually in small quantities, picked up at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people wanted their lobster but were hesitant to travel. Since then it’s taken hold.

“Our orders are definitely up from last year,” said Justin Snyder, the dock manager at Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor. “I think with the pandemic, it planted that seed.”

While direct shipping is steady during the year, with some days seeing 30 or 40 orders, it goes gangbusters during the holiday season. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Snyder estimated Beal’s would fill as many as 2,500 orders, averaging about 70 a day. On Wednesday, the crew at Beal’s were packing about 120 orders of lobster to send them out in time for New Year’s Eve.

The direct shipping model seems to be a hit with customers who want to have Maine lobsters for their special occasion but don’t live in Vacationland. New York City, Miami, Houston and Chicago are all common destinations, but every holiday season, Snyder said he fills orders for places as far flung as Kodiak, Alaska.

An order of two, 2-pound lobsters shipped anywhere in the U.S. from Beal’s costs $200, with shipping included. Most direct shipping orders Snyder receives are for two to 10 lobsters and can be shipped the same day if the request is in by about 10:30 a.m.

“People are willing to go the extra mile,” Snyder said. “We’re seeing a lot more orders come in.”

Some in the industry, including Snyder, see direct shipping as a new area for growth. Several other Maine companies ship either live lobsters or lobster meat and tails through their own websites or services such as Goldbelly.

The Winter Harbor Lobster Cooperative has been doing direct shipping for years and has also seen it take off recently. But shipping live animals doesn’t come without risk.

Last week, the co-op had orders from just before Christmas get held up in shipping due to weather problems and the co-op was never notified.

“A lot of them were for large parties,” said Susan Soper, the co-op’s manager. “It’s a nightmare on our end.”

Overnight shipping is essential. Picked lobster meat can last longer, but when shipping a live animal, a delayed package can mean a dead lobster.

“Once we close those boxes up, you have about a 36-hour window,” Soper said. “There’s nothing I can do once it leaves here.”

The customer can get a refund or new lobsters, but for large parties centered around a holiday, the replacement crustaceans often won’t come in time. Soper, who said the business has many repeat customers, wished for better communication with shippers when delays happen, so she can let people know before the lobsters arrive.

The co-op had between 20 and 30 orders to get through on Thursday, the day before New Year’s Eve — a large number for the business. Many were for 10 or more lobsters destined for parties to celebrate the new year.

After the holiday rush, Soper plans to reevaluate the direct shipping side of the business. She doesn’t want to see it go away entirely since it provides good income, but thinks there are still some logistics to work out around the holidays.

“During the rest of the year it’s fine and it works well,” she said.