It is a bitterly cold March morning. Pick-up trucks are clustered on a patch of frozen dirt behind the Marden’s store in Ellsworth. The bed of each truck is loaded with brightly-colored rope; the cab of each truck is loaded with disgruntled lobstermen.

They’re awaiting the start of a rope-exchange program sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, where they will exchange floating groundline rope for their traps for vouchers to buy sinking groundline rope. It’s one of four events the foundation will hold the week of March 23 to help Maine fishermen make the switchover before new federal regulations mandating sinking groundline go into effect April 5.

The lobstermen cluster their trucks together so they can talk to each other through the windows.

“I didn’t know I could get a dump-truck-load,” a lobsterman says laughing, pointing at the hauling truck of another. “I thought they said a pickup-truck load.

“It’s a pickup,” the other responds. “You try and pick it up.”

Everyone laughs at everyone else’s jokes appreciatively, but it doesn’t take long for talk to turn to the new regulations. As soon as the federal requirement is brought up, language gets salty. Few state or federal regulators or elected officials escape a tongue-lashing.

The sinking groundline regulation was put into place to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from fishing line entanglement, one of the leading man-made causes of death for the whales. After years of delay, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced the rope regulation in 2008 along with other new regulations designed to protect the estimated 325-400 remaining right whales.

Ocean experts and conservations credit the new rules for helping to stabilize the right whale population, but Maine lobstermen argue that the new rope will catch and break on Maine’s rocky shore. In their pickups, some even have disparaging comments about the whales themselves, but not Bill Smith, a Deer Isle lobsterman. “It’s not the whales’ fault…but [the rule-makers] are not making us whale-friendly people,” says Smith.

Smith estimates he has 1,300 pounds of coiled rope in the back of his truck, the result of hours of “boring” labor, he says.

But the labor is worth his time. Sinking groundline rope is more expensive than floating rope, and the buyback program offers vouchers of $1.40 a pound. Before the two recent rope exchange events, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation had handed out nearly $1.4 million in vouchers and collected nearly 1 million pounds of rope. During the two March events in Rockland and Ellsworth, the foundation hopes to collect an addition 380,000 pounds from some 300 lobstermen.

Laura Ludwig, who runs the rope exchange program for the foundation, is constantly in motion in the cold, talking to the lobstermen that are there and fielding calls from lobstermen wanting to take part in the exchange. The event is full, but some lobstermen wait for hours on a waiting list.

The foundation has held similar rope exchanges before, but many lobstermen still haven’t switched over to the sinking rope, says Ludwig. They were hoping the rope rule wouldn’t happen, she says.

The rule was supposed to take effect in Maine in 2008, but Maine lobstermen received a six-month reprieve from the federal government in the fall. Federal fishery regulators ruled that entanglement risks were minimal in Maine waters over the winter. Ludwig says the six-month extension was also a nod to the financial impact of the new rope rule.

“They were able to agree that this would financially kill everybody,” if it went into effect last fall, she says.

Ludwig stops to talk to two lobstermen about how the new rope is working. The lobstermen report that two lines snapped on some particularly rocky shore. Though federal charts list some in-shore and island waters as exempted from the new rope rules, Ludwig says the charts are confusing and imperfect, so the foundation maintains its own charts to help. The lobstermen tell her where the lines have snapped and she’s surprised by the location. They agree to look it over on her charts later.

Behind her, Mark McGuire, Sr., a Cutler lobsterman, sits in his truck, waiting to exchange rope. A veteran of the lobster industry, McGuire says the rope exchange may be the only way young lobstermen can comply with the rope without financially going underwater. “We did it last year,” McGuire says. “It’s a big help.”

But many more lobstermen are still on the waiting list for the rope exchange. Behind McGuire, Lance Ciomei, a young lobsterman, stands outside his father’s pickup truck with his hands in his pockets. His father is on the waiting list, and Ciomei’s truck is loaded with his rope. Ciomei didn’t bother to bring his line because there were no slots available.

When asked what he would do about the new rope without the vouchers, he shrugged. “Out of my own pocket,” he says.

Ludwig says the foundation is planning another buyback. The buyback program is scheduled to receive $100,000 from a recent omnibus-spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama.