Maine delegation, lobstermen ask feds to postpone whale protection rules, citing rope shortage

Lobster fishing boats head out to sea on a foggy morning off South Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)
Lobster fishing boats head out to sea on a foggy morning off South Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP)

Maine lobstermen say there's a critical shortage of specialized trap-gear they need to comply with new federal whale protection rules that go into effect this spring. The industry and Maine political leaders are asking the feds to postpone the deadline by two months. But some gear-makers and suppliers say they can make it available, if only someone would order it.

As of May 1, the new federal rules will require lobstermen to use rope that's weak enough to allow endangered North Atlantic right whales to break through it without danger of deadly entanglements. Alternatively, lobstermen can install weak links in their existing traplines to achieve the same result.

"At this point, the beginning of February, I don't have access to any type of equipment to modify my gear," says Friendship lobsterman Dustin Delano, the vice president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. He says he's been looking for gear that would make sense for his boat and his 800 lobster traps — but so far, no luck. And he's anxious to get going on the time-consuming task of hauling and converting his gear.

"There's a few options that exist but you can't get that equipment," he says. "I've looked into it myself, there isn't enough, it doesn't exist. So we can be told we need to comply by May 1, but if I can't buy the stuff what am I supposed to do?"

Gov. Janet Mills and Maine's Congressional delegation recently sent a joint letter to the Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, asking to delay the gear-conversion deadline until July 1.

"That would save the industry more than $7 million in lost fishing time, and we believe it would have no or negligible impact on risk reduction," says Sen. Susan Collins.

Collins broached the question at a committee hearing with Raimondo, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But Raimondo says she has no authority to unilaterally postpone the rule.

"We are trying to help locate the gear as well as provide as much flexibility and assistance as we can. So let us work on it a bit more, to see if we can alleviate these supply chain issues," Raimondo says.

That work is under way in Maine. One company in Warren, called Seaside Inc., has created a plastic weak link that's been approved by the feds. But according to Maine's Department of Marine Resources, Seaside can only produce 3,000 a day.

That's a fraction of the 300,000 weak links the agency says Maine's fleet would need to install by May 1, with hundreds of thousands more needed by peak season in the fall. Another joint venture by Brooks Trap Mill and the Maine Mold & Machine Company could add significant production, as many as 25,000 plastic links a day, if they can get federal approval.

"I think we're very close. The main thing we're working on right now is making sure that we are using the correct material," says Stephen Brooks, co-owner of the Brooks Trap Mill.

"We don't want them to shatter into pieces because, obviously, if by chance it had just come out of the water and it breaks at that moment, we don't want pieces flying around and potentially injuring someone," he says.

Meanwhile, there are options other than plastic links on the table, such as braided sleeves that can be woven into rope-line to make it more easily breakable.

A Nova Scotia company that makes the braided sleeves has 100,000 of them in its inventory, a company representative says. And in Massachusetts, rope supplier Heather Ketcham says she can supply Maine vendors with approved rope, but so far none have asked for it.

"We are manufacturing in the U.S. in North Carolina, so that helps with things like shipping and they're using all local supplies as well," Ketcham says. "If we had large orders we would be planning to make large quantities but quite honestly I don't have orders."

Ketcham says the situation seems familiar.

"So we implemented this in Massachusetts last year and we actually saw the same thing where everybody kind of waited until the last possible second to jump on it," she says. "I don't know if that's also contributing to it, that they're hoping it will get pushed or overturned or something like that."

Patrice McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen's Association says many lobstermen are skeptical of the available options, which they think could be too weak for safe use, could degrade too easily, or lack the unique markings required for Maine's fishery; they prefer the plastic links.

"The products that Maine lobstermen want to be purchasing right now to comply with this weak insert regulation are just not available," McCarron says. "Fishermen want to choose a product that is going to give them the most predictability that they will get their gear back."

State regulators are hoping NOAA will adopt another potential — and maybe the least-costly — solution, allowing fishermen to simply tie knots into their ropes at strategic intervals, knots which state research shows can weaken the line enough to protect the right whales.

This story is part of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Maine Public Radio.


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