After transitioning gear from floating groundline to sinking groundline, Maine lobstermen now are bracing for a new round of rope regulations being crafted to reduce the risk of whale entanglement. Fishing stakeholders are debating with regulators about shaping new rope rules to create a balance between reducing whale entanglement risk and minimizing financial impact. There is some concern, however, that the new regulations could exact a heavy toll for Maine lobstermen.

The new regulations being proposed are focused on reducing the amount of endline, or fishing line that connects a lobster trap to a lobster buoy. In the past decade, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Task Force has been focusing on finding ways to reduce whale entanglement in fishing gear. More than half of all whales bear scars of fishing gear entanglement, said Rosemary Seton, Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for Allied Whale.

In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that lobstermen would have to switch from floating groundline to sinking groundline. The move caught the lobstering community off-guard, and lobstermen didn’t have as much say as they would have liked in the process, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. The association is hoping to be more proactive in helping to shape the new proposed regulations, she said.

“The industry learned collectively a lot with the sinking line rule,” McCarron said. “In the end, [regulators] are going to do something to reduce risk, and we need to be able to manage that.”

The sinking line rule required lobstermen to use rope that stayed closer to the sea bottom in order to avoid interactions with whales in the water column. Maine state officials and lobstering advocates argued in vain that this new rope regulation would not work regionally on Maine’s rocky shore due to the fact that sinking line catches and chafes on Maine’s rocky bottom causing fishermen to lose traps, or worse, the line catches on the bottom and does not break causing accidents while hauling the gear.

“Those concerns have proven out,” said Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesman Terry Stockwell.

Lobstering stakeholders hope the new regulations will take a more nuanced approach to regional differences. Many of the proposed endline regulations focus on linking more lobster traps together to reduce the number of single traps in the water; lobstermen would use trawling equipment to pull up all the connected traps.

But McCarron and Stockwell argue that any such rule would need to differentiate in Maine between lobster operations closer to shore and lobstering further out. Much of the lobstering in Maine’s state waters is done with small boats near shore, boats that wouldn’t be able to handle a proposed 20 traps at a time in stormy weather, McCarron said. This area also has a very rocky bottom. And as a general rule, whale activity doesn’t occur as much in this three-mile span as it does further offshore, she said.

“We really need the most flexibility in that area,” McCarron said.

To complicate matters, there isn’t enough data yet to see what effect switching to sinking groundline has had on whale entanglement risk. There has only been one full lobstering season to gauge effects, said Scott Landry, director of the whale rescue program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Grouping groundline rope may even have increased the risk of entanglement for some whales hanging out on the ocean floor, while reducing the risk for others, he said. Rope reduction is most likely a good thing for reducing whale risk, but it may create other problems, Landry said.

“It does make mathematical sense”¦you are going to reduce the chances,” Landry said. “But like everything, there could be unintended consequences.”

David Laist, a policy and program analyst with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, said the efforts to reduce groundline has “been the most effective thing that has been done so far to reduce entanglements”. The problem, Laist said, is that it is hard to quantify the reduced risk.

“We’re trying to assess that,” Laist said.

Landry wishes he had more answers for the fishing community about the effect of rope regulation changes, but there still are many unknowns.

“Fishermen had to [switch to sinking groundline] at some expense. They want a black-and-white answer, and we can’t give it to them,” he said.

At a recent round of workshops between fishing officials and fishing advocates, McCarron says that the initial proposal offered by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association was not considered aggressive enough by NMFS. Lobstering advocates are attempting to create three-mile zones with more traps generally strung together the further one goes offshore. McCarron is also lobbying for reducing the number of traps to be strung together to ensure that Maine’s small-sized lobstering fleet can handle the transition.

A conference call between NMFS and fishing stakeholders will be held in April. But McCarron isn’t sure the association’s favored proposals will take hold. It’s still unclear, she said, how to measure a reduction in risk, which makes it hard to determine whether the association’s proposals go far enough.

“It’s really too soon to know which way the wind is blowing on this,” McCarron said.