Preliminary landings totals indicate last year’s Maine lobster landings were down by more than six million pounds. The good news is the overall price for the state’s most valuable seafood also reached an all-time high.
Lower landings may not cause all Maine lobstermen to worry, but there are other areas of concern.

One is a federal mandate to replace expensive gear, and the possibility that the required new gear won’t work well, but will cost a fortune anyway. Two Maine organizations are working hard to guarantee fishermen get the right gear and don’t go broke buying it.

Within the year, many Maine lobstermen will be ordered by federal regulators to exchange the `float rope’ they now use between their traps for some type of rope that sinks in order to protect endangered whales from entanglement. As always, the issue is not as simple or straightforward as it might seem.

“We’re hoping for an expansion of our exemption area” for float rope when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issues its rules this spring, said Terry Stockwell, Deputy Commissioner for External Affairs at the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Stockwell, addressing fishermen at a workshop on whales at the recent Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport, said, “The DMR is working to protect the whales and the fishermen”

NMFS has not yet determined exactly what kind of rope will be required in parts of Maine, where rough conditions make ordinary “sinking” line difficult to use. Harvesters say the rocky bottom will chafe through sinking line too easily, causing trap loss. Also, the lines will snag and catch in the rocks when fishermen try to haul.

Lines that float, such as those currently used by fishermen, pose more of a risk to whales, say regulators, who have mandated that lobstermen in other places use sinking lines that will lie on the bottom between traps. DMR and volunteer lobstermen are currently testing a variety of experimental ropes, including “low profile” or “neutral buoyancy” lines, which fall somewhere between floating and sinking.

“Our fishermen need some buoyancy in their lines,” said Stephen H. Robbins III, of Stonington, Maine Whale Plan Gear Specialist with the DMR. Robbins, 35, said he has 25 years’ experience lobstering in the Gulf of Maine.

“We’re looking at `low profile’ rope that makes a lowered arc in the water column,” Robbins explained. “We want to narrow down our options by the end of 2006. We want to be able to say `this is what we need.’ ”

A little-known Maine organization, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation (GOMLF) in Kennebunk, is working with DMR on the alternative rope project and has also won a grant to help harvesters pay for the rope exchange.

“Different vendors supply experimental rope. He [Robbins] reports back to the manufacturers. We use the same logbooks, the same probes,” said science director Erin Pelletier. “We’re doubling the effort” to find alternative [to sinking rope] lines for lobstermen. “We’re all doing the same thing, working together on this.”

Once the appropriate rope has been determined and mandated, GOMLF will help harvesters pay for it. The $2 million from NOAA Fisheries was appropriated and should arrive at GOMLF by this summer, said Pelletier. If Congress appropriates the money that’s been approved, GOMLF will also receive another $2 million for each of the next two years to help reimburse lobstermen for replacing their rope.

“This grant is bigger than any funding we have had before,” said Pelletier. “We’ve worked closely with the Massachusetts people who did the (whale-safe) rope project a couple of years ago,” to prepare for GOMLF’s Groundline Rope Exchange Program. “They shared everything, so we can learn from their mistakes.”