In a one-day event in Scarborough this past month, 125 lobstermen traded in 140,000 pounds of ground-line rope for vouchers toward the purchase of a rope less likely to entangle endangered whales. The rope exchange was the first of its kind in the state. Federal regulations due out in October ensure it won’t be the last.

The event, sponsored by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, was designed to help area lobstermen make the transition from floating rope to sinking rope for trap ground-lines. Floating rope has been known to snare endangered fin, humpback and right whales, while evidence suggests sinking rope will prevent such fatal entanglements. For every pound of floating rope turned in, lobstermen received a voucher for $1.40 toward the purchase of sinking rope at area marine outfitting stores.

Sinking rope is more costly than floating rope; estimates say it will cost the average lobsterman $3,500 to make the transition. Laura Ludwig, Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation Project Director, said the vouchers won’t cover the total costs of purchasing the new rope.

“The dollar-forty we’re giving them is just to take the edge off,” she said.

Conservationists and whale disentanglement teams applauded the rope exchange. Bob Bowman, Maine regional coordinator for Provincetown’s Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, said he’s been hoping for an event like this for years.

“I think it’s really exciting that it’s going on,” Bowman said.

Bowman said while floating rope by its nature floats into the possible paths of whales, sinking rope stays closer to the bottom. A move to sinking rope for lobstermen who can successfully fish with it can’t help but improve endangered whales’ chances for survival, he said.

“It’s just a matter of physics,” he said.

Vicki Cornish, director of marine wildlife conservation for the Ocean Conservancy, said such exchanges can’t come a moment too soon. There are only some 350 North Atlantic right whales left in the wild and that number is declining yearly. Anything that can be done to prevent entanglement deaths might save the species, she said.

“If we could save two females a year, we may be able to reverse the trend,” Cornish said.

The exchange is coming at a critical time in the lobster industry as well. After years of delay, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced it finally will come out with new rules on fishing gear designed to protect endangered Atlantic whales in October. The rules were first mandated in 2003, shortly after a critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale died while ensnared in what was believed at the time to be whale-safe lobster gear.

This past February, the Ocean Conservancy and the Humane Society of the United States sued NMFS in federal district court to force it to release the new rules. The suit said the agency was violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act with its delay; seven right whales, fourteen humpback whales, and four fins have died or been injured from fishing gear entanglements since 2003, according to the Ocean Conservancy. This year’s promised October rulemaking date is part of a settlement of the February lawsuit.

Though no one knows what the new rules will be, lobster industry insiders and conservationists agree it will call for more use of sinking rope. Sinking rope is already mandated in some federal waters and Cornish said it is used exclusively in Massachusetts. Many believe the new regulations will ban floating ground-line rope altogether.

“There’s a good chance of that,” Ludwig said.

But not every lobsterman is ready to trade in his or her floating rope just yet. David Provencher is a Zone G representative of the state’s lobster council and lives in the Scarborough area. He knew of the exchange, but chose not to participate because he’s waiting to see if the new federal regulations will stop short of banning floating rope outright.

“I’m hoping state waters get exempt,” Provencher said.

Many Maine lobstermen feel sinking rope catches too much on rocky sea bottom to be practical, especially Downeast. When asked, Leroy Bridges of Deer Isle was adamant about his opinion of sinking rope.

“I have a bunch of feelings about it, none of them positive,” Bridges said. “I’ve got rope in my shop…that’s 15 years old. [With sinking rope] I’d be lucky to get two.”

Even some lobstermen who participated in the exchange were less than impressed with sinking rope. Ted Christie of Westport Island, who traded in some 1,300 pounds of floating rope, said sinking rope won’t work for many lobstermen he knows. Still, he felt the exchange was a good investment. He fishes mainly in smooth-bottom areas and somewhat in federal waters, and he’s sure the new regulations will call for more sinking rope there.

“I might as well get geared up,” Christie said.

The Ocean Conservancy’s Cornish hopes complaints against sinking rope will become a catalyst for change. She said lobstermen are natural engineers and innovators; once they use sinking rope, they’ll be able to provide better feedback to rope manufacturers.

“Once the fishermen are involved in the engineering of that line, it will make a better line,” she said.

Ludwig said the next rope buyback program most likely will happen early next year.

Most everyone agrees lobstermen will need to transition to safer gear or risk expanded area closures by the federal government. Like it or not, sinking rope may be the only way both right whales and the lobster industry can survive.