The Maine Lobstering Union has filed a notice of its intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service, seeking to roll back rules that require fishermen here to use sinking rope and to run up to 15 traps on just two vertical lines in some offshore waters.

But the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) argues such legal action could unravel a delicate and hard-won deal that kept the state’s fishermen from having to adhere to far more onerous restrictions.

Kim Tucker, a Lincolnville attorney who is representing the union, said fishermen’s safety is at risk by using the sinking line that links traps on the bottom, because the rope frays from the inside and can snap unexpectedly. Tucker and others have said that some fishermen have lost fingers when the line broke.

“It’s really dangerous stuff,” she said. It doesn’t lay flat on the deck, posing a threat of tangling the legs of those working around it, she added.

Tucker also said the longer trawls—the series of traps linked by sinking line—required by the federal whale protection rules can put the boat and crew at risk. Hauling equipment and the boat can react unpredictably with the heavier strain the multiple traps bring. Large rocks can be hauled up with the longer trawls, also making for unsafe conditions, she added.

The sinking line rule went into effect in 2009.

Tucker also believes whales are not made more safe by the sinking-line, multiple-trap rules. With single or double traps on a line, she argued, if a whale becomes entangled, it can shrug off the rope more easily. The increased weight of multiple traps anchor the whale when it gets tangled, she said.

Ships striking whales pose a greater threat to the marine mammals, she said.

But the MLA sees the issue in a historical context, and believes a suit could risk having a court impose far stricter rules for Maine.

Patrice McCarron, the MLA’s executive director, said the process that led to the rules began in 1995. Representing the MLA, she has attended countless regional and national meetings, met with the state’s congressional delegation and worked to protect Maine fishermen’s interests during that process, she said.

The final ruling that came out of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team’s meetings over the course of several years apply to the entire East Coast, McCarron said, though Maine and other states were able to win concessions. Massachusetts fishermen, she said, must abide by rules that close entire areas of sea bottom.

McCarron also said the MLA, the state Department of Marine Resources and others worked to eliminate a whale protection response that required fishermen to remove their traps from an area in which three whales were sighted; those restricted areas were often well over 100-square-miles, she said.

The MLA opposed the sinking line rules, McCarron said, and won some concessions, such as a $3 million buy-back program to assist fishermen converting to the new gear.

“It is not the safest rope,” she admitted. “People have gotten hurt. It’s expensive rope. But people are fishing effectively with it now.” Seventy percent of state waters are exempt from the requirement, she said.

If a court rolls back or suspends the rules, McCarron said, the entire fishery could be seen to be out of compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Such an interpretation could shut down lobstering.

“I consider the vertical line rule,” mandating multiple traps in offshore waters, “a real win for Maine,” McCarron said.

Tucker counters that the negotiated deal that led to the rules represent a conspiracy of sorts to appease the U.S. Humane Society so it would not sue, and is not based on sound science. And she charged that MLA members, which include businesses that sell rope, had a vested interest in the sinking line rule.

Tucker also argued that fishermen’s safety was not part of the rule process.

“Increasing the safety risk on the water must be considered,” she said, if the federal fisheries law Magnuson-Stevens holds sway.

The full union membership would have to vote to support filing the suit, said its representative, Joel Pitcher. Input from members led to considering the action, he added

“It’s time for a fresh perspective. We’re not jumping up and down and screaming,” Pitcher said, but fishermen are unhappy with the rules and want action.

“Safety is a huge issue,” he said, and the union’s role is to better the lot of its members. “That’s what organized labor is all about.”

Jimmy Tripp of Spruce Head in Knox County, a 40-plus year lobsterman, believes a suit is the wrong move. Though he said he has butted heads with the MLA, he believes the organization “did a hell of a job” protecting lobstermen from more onerous rules.

“We got a pretty good deal, all things considered,” he said. “Maine got a good deal.”

Though he agrees sinking rope is dangerous and expensive—he just spent $3,000 replacing rope that lasted just three years— Tripp thinks there’s no going back.

“They’re not going to get float rope back,” he said of the union effort.

Tucker said the suit would have to be filed by late April of next year.