Lobstermen must trawl up to the new limits and use new gear and markings by May 1, to reduce the risk of whale entanglement.   NOAA GRAPHIC 

Dealers scramble to supply lobstermen ahead of gear change deadline 

ELLSWORTH — May 1 is the deadline for commercial lobstermen in Maine to trawl up, use weaker rope or insert weak links and mark gear with the state color purple. But will they be ready? 

The new federal gear requirements enacted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are aimed at reducing right whale entanglements with vertical trap lines. Weaker rope or weak links will allow whales to break free of the rope, while the state-specific gear colors will help determine where a whale was entangled.  

“Everyone’s hoping for a good year, hoping for a good price,” said Virginia Olsen, a Maine Lobstering Union Local 207 member who fishes out of Stonington. “We’re just going to do what we do. We’re gonna go to work.” 

But first, enough rope and weak links must come into local fishing gear stores to supply the approximately 4,500 commercial lobstermen in Maine, each of whom can haul up to 800 traps. 

That equals a lot of rope or links – even with the requirement to attach more traps per vertical line than before, depending on the lobster zone and whether the grounds are in federal or state waters. While NOAA has specified approved gear types and brands, many local lobstermen are on waiting lists at gear shops. 

Governor Janet Mills in early February appealed to NOAA to push the deadline back to July 1 because of the gear supply issue, and again at the end of March, but NOAA has not budged. 

“I think sourcing the equipment is the difficult thing right now,” Olsen noted. “There’s definitely been some issues in getting what we need to get.”  

Brooks Trap Mill, with stores in Jonesboro, Thomaston, West Bath and Portland, carries the approved ropes and weak links, but that doesn’t mean they’re currently in stock. 

“We’ll get a little bit in and then it’s gone, and we wait for more to come in,” owner Stephen Brooks said. “It seems most people are trying to use the link and there’s just not enough available.” 

He added that lobstermen are wary of the unknowns. Will the Rocky Mountain 5/16-inch rope be strong enough to carry the number of traps required?  

“I’m not sure most guys are comfortable using that,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of this is unknown – how it’s going to work out – until everyone starts using it.”  

Olsen agreed. “That’s the big unknown, how many traps will get lost,” she said. “This is completely untested ground for us.” 

In Stonington, New England Marine & Industrial just received a shipment of NOAA-approved Candy Cane 3/8-inch ropes. But manager Robert Jones Sr. said he’s cleaned out of weak links, and the approved 5/16-inch pro flex sinking rope that lobstermen “have been screaming for” is on order.  

“I had a big pallet come in three weeks ago and it went out in two days,” he said. “Another load is coming in from Canada any day now.” 

Jones said about half the lobstermen coming in want the new rope and half want weak links. He keeps a waiting list for when a shipment arrives. 

At Downeast Fishing Gear in Trenton, there’s also a waiting list and nothing in stock right now, Jackie Ward said. 

“Every order is spoken for,” she said. “I have a long list for both [weak links and rope].” 

New rope and gear requirements are making it harder for local lobstermen to gear up for the fishing season. 

However, Ketcham Supply, in New Bedford, Mass., has several hundred coils of three NOAA-approved ropes in stock and 16,000 breakaway sleeves in its warehouse. “It’s all available and ready to go,” chief operations officer Myron Horzeksy said. “I know there’s been some word out there that there’s nothing available, but that’s not the case. We have dealers up in Maine. They’re shipping out of here on a daily basis.” 

The local lobstermen are all gearing up to meet NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which has determined that a 60 percent mortality risk reduction in state and federal fishing waters must be met by 2023 and an 87 percent risk reduction by 2030.  

The North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species under federal law, and NOAA estimates fewer than 350 remain, with less than 100 breeding females. Vertical trap lines from Canadian and U.S. fishermen along with ship strikes can (and do) severely injure and kill right whales. 

The last documented entanglement of a right whale in Maine lobster gear was in 2004, according to NOAA. Many entanglements go unobserved, and among those that scientists do discover, it is frequently difficult to determine the origins of the gear involved. 

Maine lobstermen have argued that they are not to blame for the species’ decline and that the new rules will hurt the industry while doing nothing to save whales.  

With the deadline fast approaching, lobstermen are making the switch to new gear. 

“I think it’s important to note that fishermen are really trying to comply,” Olsen said. “They’re trying to do what’s right. But there’s so much apprehension around [this]. If we put the stuff in and then we lose our gear, how can we replace them? That’s the big unknown, how many traps will get lost. This is completely untested ground for us.” 

The complete list of NOAA approved inserts and line is available at www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/marine-mammal-protection/approved-weak-inserts-and-line-atlantic-large. 

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]

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