Materials for Weak Insert Mandate in Short Supply

On May 1, Maine lobstermen will be required to incorporate weak inserts that break at 1,700 pounds of pressure into all buoy lines and to add additional traps to trawls depending on distance from shore. In addition, federal waters lobstermen must comply with expanded gear marking, and have already been subjected to a large closure that runs the length of Zones C, D and E. These new rules, phase 1 of the ten-year whale plan contained within the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 2021 Biological Opinion, have left lobstermen confused and frustrated.


This has prompted Governor Mills and Maine’s Congressional delegation, as well as the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in February, to request a 60-day delay in implementation. The Maine delegation and Governor wrote, “The economic harm imposed by the gear conversion deadline will be severe, and the scarcity of required gear is making it difficult – if not impossible – for lobstermen to achieve timely compliance.”


Under the federal whale plan, lobstermen are limited to options approved by NMFS to comply with the weak insert requirement. NMFS has approved three categories of options for lobstermen to weaken buoy lines: 1) use of approved manufactured weak rope, 2) a manufactured weak link, or 3) the braided “south shore” sleeve. NMFS has not approved any options to use a knots or splices to meet this weak insert requirement. These limited options, and the lack of commercial availability of these options, have left lobstermen frustrated on how they will meet the May deadline.


“Lobstermen must choose the weak insert option that will allow them to safely and predictably haul back gear over the course of the fishing season,” wrote Patrice McCarron, MLA’s executive director to Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo. MLA explained that manufactured weak rope will lose strength over the fishing season, increasing the risk of gear loss, so many lobstermen may prefer to use manufactured weak inserts. Maine lobstermen worked with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to develop manufactured weak links that will not lose strength over the course of the fishing season.


The NMFS web site where lobstermen can learn what rope and weak points are approved for use and where to purchase them (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/marine-mammal-protection/approved-weak-inserts-and-line-atlantic-large) changes frequently.

Weak rope, such as the candy cane (left) and red (right) made by Rocky Mount Cordage Company, is distributed through Ketcham Supply in New Bedford, as of late Feb. GARFO photos.


Several types of weak inserts are currently approved by NMFS. Seaside Rope in Warren received approval of its production mold in February. The company can produce about 3,000 weak points per week, according to Erin Summers, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Director of the Division of Ecology and the Environment. Brooks Trap collaborated with the Maine Mold Company to develop a weak point; that product was approved by NMFS in early February. The company estimates that it can produce about 20,000 weak points per day.


“Probably there will be enough time to get the weak points made and out there as long as the companies can get the materials [plastic] needed to make them. But it doesn’t leave much time to get them into the gear,” said Summers. “There’s definitely more interest in the points than in the rope.”


That’s Cutler lobsterman John Drouin’s thought as well. “If I have to use something, I prefer to try the links,” he commented via email. “But if we don’t have them in two to three weeks, I’ll have to move on and worry about fishing without them because we have to get ready for spring!”

NOAA-approved weak link.


Novatec Braids has developed a braided sleeve for approved as a weak insert called the “South Shore sleeve.” The sleeve has been successfully used by Massachusetts lobstermen to test its ability to break at up to 1,700 pounds of pressure. Lobstermen can splice the sleeve, which the company is manufacturing with state-specific color tracers, into existing rope.


With regard to NMFS’s approved list of weak ropes, “It’s ever changing, it depends on the day,” Summers said, about the information on the NMFS web site. While red twisted rope and braided weak ropes have been on the NMFS approved list for some time, the first twisted purple weak rope did not become available until mid-February. The lack of approved options and availability has led to hesitancy among lobstermen to place orders for the rope, which leads to hesitancy among rope makers to manufacture it. “Rocky Mount [Cordage Company, a NMFS-approved manufacturer of weak rope] is not getting many orders for 1700-lb rope. No one knows what to do so they are not making much because there are no orders. People are just waiting because things keep changing,” Summers said.


That’s certainly the case for Marshall Spear, a Portland lobsterman. “It’s on my radar. I’ve been talking to other guys about it,” he said. Spear, who fishes year-round offshore, confesses that he hasn’t spent that much time considering what to buy and when to buy it. “I’ve looked at weak link possibilities,” he said, noting that they should pass well through his hauler. “I use a skinnier line and fish about 120 fathom. I graduate from smaller to thicker, using 5/16” in the top one-third.”


Closer to shore, Spear and other Portland lobstermen contend with heavy ship traffic moving in and out of Portland. Consequently, they have come up with ways to allow their lines to break and so not be dragged by the larger vessels. “My uncle used two hog rings set apart from each other. He would part one strand in the [3 strand] rope between them so it would part if dragged by a ship,” Spear said. He had hoped that NMFS would support Maine-based innovations like that.


Summers purchased 100 coils of the newly available Rocky Mount purple tracer 1,700-lb rope through Ketcham Trap in New Bedford, the only New England dealer of the rope. She will also buy the same amount of Everson Cordage’s 1,700-lb rope when that rope becomes available. This rope has not been available for lobstermen to purchase, and as a result, has not been tested in the Maine lobster fishery. “DMR is buying the rope to have some available for lobstermen to check out and use so they can find out what their preferences are,” she said. “We may make a list of lobstermen who are interested or if there are many, use a lottery. We are NOT outfitting anyone.”


Summers spent three years testing different types of rope used by lobstermen as well as different knots and splices to generate data on what would work in terms of breaking at 1,700 pounds of pressure. That research was funded through a NMFS grant. She presented the results of her efforts to the NMFS’s Right Whale Unusual Mortality Event Working Group in July 2021. NMFS stated that it expected a decision on the approval of knots as an alternative to weak links in November last year.


“There have not been recommendations from them yet at all,” Summers said with some exasperation. “This is why NMFS is not moving on knots either way. It’s not a hard question to answer. There’s not a need for a lot of evaluation.” The delegation and Governor’s letter express frustration over NMFS not approving the use of knots to comply with weak insets: “It is also illogical since NMFS plans to allow the same knots to be used to connect approved braided line. Given the lack of availability of weak rope and manufactured weak links, the certification of knots is critical.”


Maine, however, has some flexibility about what will be required in Maine’s exempt waters for the May 1 weak insert deadline. “We [DMR] can say what qualifies as a weak point. It could be 5/16” rope with various knots, like a fishermen’s knot, for example,” Summers said.

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