By Bill McWeeny
Currently, Maine lobstermen are under pressure to install weak contrivances, better known as weak links, in their endlines by May 1. This measure is required by NOAA Fisheries to help reduce the risk of endangered North Atlantic right whales from being seriously injured or accidently killed during an entanglement. Maine lobstermen say that the contrivances are not readily available and are being recalled due to safety concerns. But another approved contrivance know as a weak sleeve, is immediately available from the manufacturer Novabraid in quantity.
Years ago, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) received money to develop and test plastic weak links. However, as we’ve heard in the press, there are issues with availability and durability of these plastic links. In the meantime, it appears that the weak sleeves are not being promoted as an alternative option to comply with the regulation. The concept of the weak sleeve was developed by fishermen in Massachusetts and manufactured by Novabraid after careful testing at sea with fishermen. They do not take long to install and do just fine in haulers. Fishermen in Massachusetts have been using the weak sleeves for five years now and are quite happy with their performance.
So, why are Maine lobstermen not buying weak sleeves to comply with the new regulations? Maybe it has something to do with statements from Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) President Patrice McCarron, “The products that Maine lobstermen want to be purchasing right now to comply with this weak insert regulation are just not available. Fishermen want to choose a product that is going to give them the most predictability that they will get their gear back.” (Maine NPR publication by Fred Bever, Feb. 7, 2022.)
I believe the MLA and the Maine DMR have overlooked a very good product that has been tested and used for years. They are doing a disservice to Maine lobstermen by not recommending weak sleeves for use as weak links, especially since they are proven to do the job. These sleeves are available in the numbers needed to serve the Maine fleet. Novabraid has 100,000 sleeves in storage, but no one from Maine, including the fishing supply companies, is ordering them. It is an interesting fact that each sleeve has been approved by NOAA to be cut in half and still comply with regulations for installation. Each sleeve costs about $2. That means about $1 per link. And they take less than two minutes to install. Another excuse for not using weak sleeves was mentioned by McCarron. She said that the orange color is not the scheme needed to mark the lines of Maine lobster gear. This is not accurate. The gear marking for different regions is required at four points on each endline and is totally independent of what color the weak contrivances may be. The Maine DMR could supply the weak sleeves immediately, free of cost to the lobstermen just like Massachusetts did last summer for Massachusetts lobstermen.
Finally, I must point out that the Maine DMR has suggested that the weak contrivances be installed differently than recommended by NOAA. When the weak sleeves were developed, they were designed to be installed every 40-60 feet in an end line. The science shows that when a whale hits a line with weak points in it, the weak point closest to the whale will break first, which will likely improve the outcome for the whale. With a shorter amount of line on one side of its mouth and the force provided by the buoy and line remaining above, it should help the whale shed the gear. But, Maine DMR has proposed that only one or two weak links should be put in the top half or third of an end line. Right whales often feed at depth. If the whale gets entangled below the placement of the weak link, it might not break at all. In this case the whale would have lobsterpots hanging from one side and hundreds of feet of line on the other side. That is a formula for severe and potentially lethal entanglement. Massachusetts lobstermen install weak links every 60 feet. Maine lobstermen should also. The current Maine implementation in the top half or third will not help the whales.
Maine lobstermen should be open to weak sleeves as a method to reduce severe entanglements to right whales and all large whales. Correctly installed weak sleeves, currently available, are one answer to risk reduction of severe or lethal entanglements of any large whale swimming in waters that Maine lobstermen fish in.
Bill McWeeny lives in Brooksville and is the chair of the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales. He enjoys cheering on his student group, the Calvineers, who seek the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale through educational presentations.