How to Buy Live Lobster

Shopping for a deal on lobsters at your local market or online? Buying live lobster can be a little intimidating. What’s a good size lobster? Is a male lobster better than a female? How do you know the lobster is healthy? Here is a detailed guide for landlubbers and first time shoppers on how to buy live lobster without getting taken as a tourist. Follow these suggestions for picking out the perfect lobster for cooking at home.

Selecting Lobsters

Pick a Lively, Healthy Lobster

Make sure you choose a healthy, feisty lobster. Lobsters are graded by firmness and liveliness. The lower the grade, the softer the shell and less hardier the lobster. Just because a lobster is live, doesn’t mean it is fresh. When pulled from the water, a healthy lobster should flap its tail and raise its claws.

Five Tips for Choosing a Freshly Caught Lobster

  1. Do the lobster’s claws droop? This is a sign the lobster is weak and has no fight.
  2. Test the tail. An easy test is to push the tail straight— if it does not re-curl, you’ve caught a bad one.
  3. Check the lobster for two long antennae. Lobsters with missing or chewed antennae have spent time in storage.
  4. Inspect the claw bands. Another sign you’ve bought a fresh caught lobster is if the claw bands are free from stains and sea grime.
  5. Avoid a lobster with a cracked shell or claw.
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Avoid a Sleeper Lobster: A sleeper lobster is a sluggish or not so lively lobster that may be near death.

You don’t want lobsters that were swimming in the pounds for weeks. Lobsters held in a tank for a long time will eventually lose weight and the claw meat will shrink. Zombielike lobsters that barely move and have droopy claws are called “sleepers”. Stay clear from these lobsters. 

Choose a Hard-shell Lobster

Hard-shell lobsters ship well because they are stronger and hardier. Equally important, hard shell lobsters have more meat and better texture. Select a lobster that feels heavy for its size. Squeeze the sides of the lobster’s body; the soft shell will yield to pressure, while the hard shell will be firm. Soft-shell lobsters will always be cheaper than hard shell but may not necessarily be a bargain in the end.

How to Buy Live Lobsters

Male or Female Lobster

To identify male and female, turn the lobster on it’s back and look at the first pair of swimmerets, or appendages, just where the body and tail meet. The male lobster legs are thick and stiff while the female legs are soft and delicate.

Generally, there is no taste difference between a male and female lobster. It’s a matter of preference in picking a male or female lobster, but here are the major differences:

  • Adult males will have bigger claws.
  • Only female lobsters have roe inside, which some consider a delicacy.
  • Female lobsters will have larger tails.

Best Time of Year

Generally, the best time of year to buy Maine lobsters for delivery is before Memorial Day (before the summer tourists arrive) and after Labor Day (when the tourist leave). In the summer the catch consists of a high percentage of soft-shell lobsters, while hard-shell lobsters are sometimes hard to come by. Next to late spring, fall is another prime time to buy great lobsters. Learn more about the best times of year for lobster.

What Size Lobster

Lobsters come in different sizes, from under legal size to a whopping 20 pounds. They are sold by the weight of each individual lobster. Live lobsters are graded by size and by shell quality. It’s always best to buy a healthy, lively lobster no matter the size.

If lobster is the main event, a 1-1/2 to 2 pounds per person is in order. While some believe the big lobsters are tough and the smaller one’s are sweeter, we believe it comes down to proper cooking. See our guide for picking a good size lobster.

Lobster Sizes:

Chix: also called chickens: 1.0 – 1.24 lb
Quarters: 1.25 – 1.49 lb
Halves: 1.50 – 1.74 lb
Deuces: also called twos, two pounders, and selects: 2.0-2.25
Heavy Selects: 2 – 2.5 lb.
Jumbos: Over 2.5

PRO TIP: Ask if culls are available. Culls are lobsters missing one claw, usually less expensive and good for a recipe calling for cooked lobster meat.

In Maine, lobster carapaces – the distance between the bottom of the eye socket to the end of the largest shell – must measure 3 and 1/4 to 5 inches. Maine state law forbids fishermen from keeping any lobsters that measure more than more than five inches from the eye to the start of the tail. Learn more about lobster conservation and preservation.

FACT: A lobster with no claws is called a ‘pistol’ or ‘bullet,’ often the result of a fight. Did you know lobsters can regenerate their claws?

Maine or Canadian Lobster

While Maine lobster is known for being the best tasting lobster in the world, Canadian lobsters are in fact the same species: Homarus americanus. Maine and Canadian lobsters are both fished out of the same ocean and are both known as the American lobster. The real difference is where and when they are caught. Canada has specific legal seasons for lobstering, while Maine fishing happens year-round, and peaks late summer.

The better lobster depends more on factors like the lobster’s shell quality, and health and vitality highlighted in this buying guide. Sometimes, Maine lobster are just not firm enough to ship. Many times great, good hard-shell lobsters are caught in Maine, other times they may come from the waters of Canada or even New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In short, we strive to source the best of the best lobsters.

Don’t be fooled by Rock lobster or Spiny lobster — these are warm water varieties and are not in the same class. You’ll often see these cheaper species marketed as tails at the warehouse clubs.

Lobster Color

How to Buy Lobster
The ultimate guide to buying lobster online or at your seafood market.

When shopping for live lobsters don’t be surprised by the dark green,brown or blackish color. Lobsters can vary in these color shades depending on where and when they are caught, but only turn bright red after cooking. The color of the lobster has no impact its quality nor taste of the meat. For more about lobsters colors and to see some rare colored lobsters, click here.

Where to Shop for Lobster

It’s always fresher to buy direct from the source. If you cannot buy from the boat (licensed fisherman), stay close to the water. Look for lobster pounds and lobster co-ops that move hundreds of pounds of product daily.

Lobster Storage and Quality

Lobsters generally do not live much beyond a day out of water. Live lobsters are very perishable, and require a controlled salt water environment and strict temperature control to remain alive and healthy. The better lobster outlets routinely maintain modern storage facilities. They use chillers and biological filters to create a clean, cold sea water habitat that lobsters love. Some lobster outlets, located right on the water, pump in fresh ocean sea water into their holding tanks.

Seafood Markets and Grocery Stores

Don’t live near the shore? Shop at a busy fish market with fast moving inventory. You want a place that flies in lobsters daily. Supermarkets and club stores should be your last resort. Stay clear of fish markets where lobster tanks are poorly maintained. Watch out for the following:

  • Overcrowded tanks with little room for lobsters to move about.
  • Scarce numbers of lobsters may indicate little or no turnover.
  • Water is murky, cloudy, or there is evidence of green algae, and/or mold.
  • Evidence of dead or mutilated lobsters.

Online Lobster Purveyors

As you will discover there are plenty of lobster companies online. How do you know you purchased a great lobster online? How do you know which lobster company to choose?

  • Shop at a lobster company, not a gourmet food shop, mail order steak company, or drop shipper.
  • Offers strong, hard-shell lobsters, ideal for shipping.
  • Provides a guaranteed delivery day and time with a tracking number.
  • Read verified reviews from real customers.
  • Check how long the seafood company has been in business. Do they have a track record?
  • Guarantees your lobsters arrive fresh and alive on the date requested. What happens if you receive a dead lobster? Or your order does not even show up? See our Happy Cracking Guarantee.

Learn more why LobsterAnywhere is the best place to shop for lobster online. Click here.


  1. Awesome article. Thanks so much!!! Question.. What percent tip is normal for a Fish market employee who cooks your lobsters for you? Want to get it right.
    Dawn Moore

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