With the summer boating season underway, lobstermen are dealing with the age-old problem of recreational boaters running over trap lines.

Recreational boaters inadvertently sail or motor over trap lines and in so doing, wrap the line around the propeller or rudder. When that happens, despite sincere effort to free it, sometimes cutting the rope becomes necessary.

Most boat owners, both working and pleasure, when forced to cut the wrapped lines, try to tie the buoy back on, rather than sending two or three unattached traps to the bottom. Some, though, attach spurs, or line cutters manufactured to keep a propeller or rudder free of any obstruction, such as seaweed and other debris. These spurs cut trap lines as boats drive or sail over them.

Each summer after a sailboat race or a yacht club visits a fishing harbor, the vessels often leave evidence of their passage in the form of cut off buoys either floating in the water or washed up on shore.

William Richards, manager of the Portland Yacht Club, said his members are careful and try to avoid running over trap lines. When the boaters that Richards knows get tangled in a trap line, cannot free it, and end up having to cut it, they float the buoy it in some way.

Richards said he thinks he’s only run over lines twice in 25 years of sailing. “The first time, we had to cut it, but we were able to pull the buoy off and retied the line. The second time, we had to cut the line, but we retrieved the buoy and, using the information on the buoy, I contacted the Department of Marine Resources and got the name of he lobsterman.” Richards wrote, apologized, and offered to reimburse the fisherman.

“We understand these men and women are working for a living and we want to respect their living,” Richards said.

However, Stonington Lobstermen’s Co-op Manager Stephen Robbins, III, said, “You don’t want to paint a perception that recreational boaters are solely responsible, because in an area [like Stonington Harbor], you have a very large number of vessels working in a, relatively speaking, small area, and when you have that, fishermen run over fishermen’s buoys, or even their own. Tide changes, you lose power, something doesn’t go just right, a hundred different things could happen.” 

A lot of Stonington fishermen fish a main buoy and then a top toggle (a smaller float at or near the surface). That they do so is important because, Robbins explained, “When a tide is running … the way the buoys are laying on the water can give people an indication of whether it is coming or going.”

In congested areas, there is little room for error. For those in powerboats, the best course is to slow down in these sections. For those sailing, Robbins said, “when in trouble, when in doubt, slow down, stop, and come about.”

The standard way of unwrapping a line caught on a propeller, if it isn’t badly entangled, is to somehow put tension on the line and slowly reverse your boat. But everyone has their own techniques.

Curtis Rindlaub, co-author of A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast, said the best way to avoid entanglement is very straightforward. “The best avoidance is steering,” he said. I don’t know any other way, really. You steer around them. I think people who are not used to Maine waters may think they can run a straight-line course or let their autopilot steer for them, but the autopilot doesn’t see the buoys.”

Rindlaub said he never goes boating at night, unless he is desperate. “My point is, the fact that there are buoys out there limits your ability to navigate at night.”

Frank Gotwals, Stonington fisherman and co-op president, when asked the amount of damage done by boaters sailing, motoring, and racing through the harbor, replied, “They could easily chew up several thousands [of dollars] worth of gear.”

Sandra Dinsmore is a freelance writer who lives in Penobscot. She writes the Lobster Market Report for Commercial Fisheries News.