CAPE ELIZABETH — Lincoln Jordan pulled a rectangular wire basket from a display tank inside the family vegetable stand at Alewive’s Brook Farm Wednesday morning.

“It usually looks like this,” he said, as half a dozen soft-shelled lobsters glistened orange and brownish-black in the bottom of the dripping basket.

“But this morning, these were filled to the top,” he said, gesturing toward a row of five similar baskets. “I’ve never seen this many culls this time of year for soft shell.”

Steve Train, a lobsterman on Long Island, returned to hauling traps last week after taking a month off while he switched boats.

“We’re definitely seeing more than I usually see this time of year,” he said of the soft-shell lobsters, which normally don’t start showing up in abundance until June or early July.

Local retailers started splitting prices — lower for soft shells and higher for hard shells — in late April and early May.

“Nobody’s ever seen the prices split so early,” said Jody Jordan, Lincoln’s father, standing behind bins of turnips, potatoes and parsnips at the farmers market in Monument Square. “Usually there’s just one price until the middle of June.”

The elder Jordan said crustaceans he catches near the shore are generally of the hard-shell variety, because the shallower water turns colder in winter, even one as mild as the one Maine just experienced.

“But off shore, in 200 or 300 feet of water, the catch is almost 90 percent soft-shell lobsters when it should be the other way around this time of year,” he said.

Data on landings for 2012 isn’t yet available, said Carl Wilson, lead lobster biologist for the state Department of Marine Resources. Still, a look at recent years reveals the spring lobster season is dwarfed by that of the summer and early fall.

The total catch in March, April and May was 4.12 percent of the 2009 total, 4.21 of the 2010 total and 3.66 of the 2011 total, which surpassed 100 million pounds for the first time.

“So I don’t think we’re talking about a huge volume at this point,” Wilson said. “Even if it is a strange spring, it doesn’t predict what’s going to happen for the total landings of the year.”

Nick Alfiero, proprietor of Harbor Fish Market, said the appearance of soft shells this early is unusual, but has little impact on his business.

“If we were flooded and the lobsters were jumping out of the tanks and we were up there at $3.99 (a pound) trying to get rid of them, it would be a story,” he said. “But they’re coming in small quantities.”

Per pound prices at Harbor Market Wednesday were $6.99 for soft shells, $8.99 for smaller hard shells and $10.99 for medium-sized hard shells.

Only hard-shell lobsters can survive the rigors of shipping, so soft shells are strictly a local delicacy.

Steve DiMillo Sr. of DiMillo’s On the Water restaurant buys only hard shells because “we want to insure there’s plenty of meat in the lobsters,” he said.

Although the soft-shell lobsters contain more water and less meat, most of the lobstermen and retailers interviewed Wednesday said the meat tastes sweeter and more tender.

And chefs such as David Turin of David’s Restaurant in Portland and Chris Barrett of the Azure Cafe in Freeport said harvesting the cooked meat for use in ravioli, lobster rolls or other dishes is much easier with soft shells.

“It’s nice to not shred your hands on the super-hard ones when you’re shucking them,” said Turin, who said he also cooks lobsters only about six minutes, about half the time of when it is cooked prior to being frozen or sold.

“It takes a lot of work to crack lobsters,” Barrett said. “The easier they are to crack, the less time we have to spend doing it.”

Ditto for local processing plants such as Cozy Harbor Seafood.

“They do most of the hand-picked meat for the area,” Barrett said.

As for theories, water temperature clearly plays a role in a lobster’s movement and metabolism. When ocean temperatures drop below about 40 degrees, Wilson said, lobsters are less likely to eat.

If they remained active throughout the winter, he said, their summer molts became spring molts.

Pete McAleney of New Meadows Lobster considers ocean currents and the lack of severe winter storms from the north and east as the reason for the warmer water temperatures.

“If you look at my house,” said McAleney, pointing out his second-story abode on the end of Portland Pier, “all the paint is chipped on (the western) side because the storms all came this way. Usually, we have to paint the front of this building, but nothing happened. It was a crazy winter. I think I used my snow-blower once on the wharf.”

McAleney also said the abundance of shedders is restricted to certain areas in the Gulf of Maine. Few have been caught Down East, for example, or in parts of Casco Bay.

“But down around Five Islands,” he said, “that’s all they’re catching is soft-shell lobsters.

“So it’s tough to explain. It’s just Mother Nature.”

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