Lobstermen find trouble with “whale rope”

First published in the MLA newsletter, November, 2010.

Richard “Buzz” Carver won’t ever forget September 13. The 50-year-old lobsterman was ready to move his traps offshore and so had converted all his tailor warps to sinking line. He was hauling up traps in an area called Deep Hole off Great Wass Island. Many lobstermen consider it a good place to set thus when he started to haul, Carver found his trap ensnarled with ten others. “The whale rope was wrapped around the dog bone on the front of the trap. It had a lot of play in it and the slack made a loop,” Carver recalled. With the line in the hauler, Carver reached out and the next thing he knew, the loop had snapped tight – “just like that” – and cut off the majority of his thumb.

“It happened just before two and by four o’clock I was up at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor,” Carver said. “I had surgery that night. The doctor made a cut in my chest and set the thumb in there for the skin to grow over. Couple of days later he cut the thumb out and wrapped the skin around it. So I’ve got a thumb and it’s workable but the rope shattered all the bone from the knuckle forward.” Carver is now in physical therapy to retrain his hand to work. “Can’t even pick up a glass of water,” he added.

Sinking lines are no longer available for use by many lobstermen along the coast. Photo by MLA.

Sinking line, or whale rope as the lobstermen call it, is mandated for use by the National Marine Fisheries Service in order to protect the endangered right whale from becoming entangled in lobster gear. Unlike floating line, which has been used for tailor warps for decades, sinking line lies on the bottom. Lobstermen have complained about the line from the moment it came into use – it chafes easily, it breaks, it gets hung up on just about everything. Now some serious questions have arisen about the rope’s safety.

Micah Philbrook, an Owls Head lobsterman who fishes offshore in the winter, has been using sinking line for two years. “I’ve had pretty bad results,” he said. “It parts off and I lose a lot of traps.” Philbrook sets twenty-trap trawls. “Sometimes I can get the other end and catch it. But sometimes I lose them all,” he admitted. He now is using the heaviest line he can get, ½-inch rope, which he says generally holds up pretty well. “Anything less than that, parts,” he said.

One problem he has seen is the rope’s tendency to snarl. “When it goes overboard it will snarl up with itself really easily. It goes over in kinks and snarls which is bad,” he said. Last winter Philbrook and his sternman were hauling offshore in heavy seas when he found the line hung down on something. A wave brought the boat up and then down again abruptly with the line in the hauler. The next thing Philbrook knew, his davit had snapped off. “I really don’t have anything good to say about it,” he said firmly.

According to Laura Ludwig, project manager at the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation and coordinator of the foundation’s successful float rope exchange, there’s still not much verifiable data on how sinking line is working for lobstermen. A survey conducted by the

A boulder caught in sinking line. Photo courtesy of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.

Foundation in cooperation with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) and Downeast Lobstermen’s Association last fall resulted in just 56 responses from lobstermen. “It did give us a little bit of an idea of the labor involved,” Ludwig said. “There’s a lot of cutting out bad sections and splicing, a lot of lost traps.”

The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) recently changed its requirements for lobstermen to receive replacement tags for lost traps. Lobstermen must now fill out a form stating what caused them to lose their traps which then must be signed by a DMR patrol officer. Ludwig has begun delving into those lost trap forms to see what data she can glean from them.

Looking at 945 forms submitted from April to September, 2009, Ludwig found that the majority of lost tags were due to boat traffic (44%). Approximately 33% of the claims cited sinking line as the reason for the lost trap. “It’s not a lot of data and it came from the time lobstermen were switching over,” Ludwig said. “I am not going to hang my hat on it yet.”

For the past year Heather Tetreault, the MLA’s whale projects coordinator, has been interviewing lobstermen in harbors along the Maine coast about placement of lobster gear. The goal of her work is to describe patterns of gear in each lobster zone by  season. This information can be used with whale data to assess the likelihood of right whale entanglements.

Tetreault has found that many lobstermen have changed their fishing grounds due to the frequency with which sinking line chafes on rough bottom. Others have shortened up tailor warps due to chafed rope and lost gear. The use of cement runners with sinking rope was also reported to be a problem; the groundline chafes on the cement runners.

Dwight Carver, an MLA board member who fishes from Beals Island, is deeply frustrated by the sinking line and concerned about its

One lobsterman out of Northeast Harbor watched his davit bend due to a sinking line snarl. Photo courtesy of Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.

dangers to lobstermen. “Yesterday I was so wound up about this stuff I said we ought to hang them with this whale rope so they understand where we are. The more it wears, the more dangerous it will be,” he said.

Carver said that the rope simply doesn’t behave the way float rope does. “It is way more difficult to work with. Running, it will bunch up,” he explained. He has used sinking line for two seasons and concludes that the rope just won’t stand up to constant use. “You might get three years max out of it. Poly line you would get six to ten years use,” he said. “None of us like it.”

Buzz Carver is grateful that he still has something resembling a thumb on his hand. But he thinks the sinking line will continue to pose a threat to himself and other lobstermen. “It tangles up wicked. It goes through the escape vents and wraps itself on the trap. I had it come up another time in the hauler, lasso a trap and crush it. It is nothing but a hindrance,” he said.

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