A low profile may be the best solution for lobster fishermen in Maine.

The state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is working to find lobster gear alternatives to new proposed requirements from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) as part of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP). This proposal would prohibit the use of “poly” or floating rope for groundlines, which connect a string of lobster traps together.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team was established by NMFS in the 1996 to help develop alternative regulations to prevent entanglements of endangered whales with fishing gear. Four of the NMFS six proposed alternatives would require all groundlines be replaced with “sinking and/or neutrally buoyant” rope by 2008. The reasoning behind this ban is that if rope fixed between lobster traps is sitting on the bottom rather than floating up in the water column where whales are foraging, they may not become entangled.

A blanket regulation such as this affects Maine fishermen very differently than in other states were the lobster fishing bottom is sandy and sinking groundlines do not entangle and chafe on rocks and ledges. Maine has a very rocky bottom, and lobstermen use floating rope between traps so that it won’t get caught.

If Maine fishermen are required to switch to the proposed sinking groundlines they would be faced with not only costly replacement in the form of rope but also in trap loss due to chafing on ledges and traps, particularly if they are unable to haul them up because the traps are caught on rocks. To avoid this loss, fishermen say they could be forced to fish single traps, meaning even more lines in the water.

The DMR now has a cooperative agreement with the Fisheries Service to work toward a solution. Terry Stockwell the Resource Coordinator for the Maine Department, says, “Maine is taking the lead on this to find alternative gear types because the proposed alternatives are not applicable to our industry and our habitats, so we have been challenged to come up with alternatives that will work. Most importantly we want to keep Maine Lobstermen fishing and with gear that meets the new ALWTRP requirements.”

The DMR is also working with conservation groups and Congress to find funding for a buyback program to defray some of the costs of replacing groundlines.

Recently the department hired Stephen Robbins III of Stonington, a research gear specialist with 25 years of lobster fishing experience. Since June Robbins has been meeting with fishermen to test new “low profile” gear. Such gear will float just above the bottom, avoiding ledges and rocky habitats while it settles low enough in the water column allowing whales to forage without becoming entangled.

“Fishermen are the most conservation-minded people I know,” says Robbins. “They always take an ecosystem approach to any matter – however, they too need to make a living.”

Robbins will have a regular column in Commercial Fisheries News on a bi-monthly basis that will provide updates and address more specifics on the prototype low profile gear. The Fisheries Service will also hold a series of fact-finding low profile groundline workshops to assess its feasibility.

For more information about the regulations and the workshop agenda please visit NOAA Fisheries Service website. Lobstermen interested in testing out the prototype low profile groundline gear should contact Stephen Robbins. At (207) 633-9513, cell (207) 350-6014 or by e-mail at Stephen.Robbins@maine.gov.

Jennifer Litteral is the Marine Programs Officer at the Island Institute. Previously, she was a harbormaster/shellfish warden and marine researcher.