Any fisherman will tell you that before heading to sea with new equipment, it’s best to test it out. You don’t want to be miles from shore when something essential goes bad. Maine lobstermen are using new gear for the first time this year, specifically weak links and weak rope designed to break at 1,700 pounds of pressure.
“I tested five links from Brooks Trap,” said South Thomaston lobsterman David Cousens. “I tied each to a tree and pulled it with my truck. Two out of five shattered. Some pieces stayed with the rope and others went flying. One piece dented the tailgate of my brand-new truck.”
Matt Gilley of Cundy’s Harbor, on the other hand, found that it was the rope, not the link, that gave. “I tied one of the Seaside links to a tree. I used 3/8” rope with the splices. The brand-new rope parted, not the link,” he said. “When a rope parts above the water, it whiplashes. That will definitely wake you up, better than a cup of coffee.”
Lobstermen are trying their best to comply with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) new right whale protection regulations that went into effect on May 1. But throughout this past month lobstermen still struggled to purchase the weak links; and many who have purchased the available weak rope have expressed disgust with the quality of the products available.
Stephen Brooks at Brooks Trap Mill in Thomaston has been in the thick of the weak link world for some months now. His company partnered with Maine Mold and Machine Company to design and produce a weak link for lobstermen which complies with NMFS’s standards.
“We’ve modified it four times,” Brooks said. “In the original link the slot wasn’t large enough for a variety of ropes.”
Each Maine Mold weak link is imprinted with the word “TOP” to indicate which end of the link should be facing upward. The top end is slightly thinner than the bottom, so that it should break first when encountering 1,700 pounds of pressure. The thicker end should be facing downward, toward the water, so that if the link breaks it drops away from the person at the hauler. And that may give lobstermen a slight safety advantage when the break comes.
“For every action there’s a reaction,” Brooks said, referring to the great pressure the link experiences before breaking. “With any test I’ve run, the links don’t always break at the same strength every time. When it breaks, you do not want to get hit by it.”
Brooks Trap has taken the weak link safety issue so seriously that the company has printed a poster telling lobstermen that when hauling any weak link, safety glasses are strongly recommended. Stephen Brooks even narrated a video explaining clearly how to use the Maine Mold weak link to minimize possible injuries should the link break.
According to Brooks, the Maine Mold weak link goes through haulers without much trouble. He’s more concerned about what shape the weak link is in at the end of a long season. “We don’t know what kind of wear will happen. We don’t know if it can withstand steady chaffing and not get below 1,700 pounds. No one know what these things will look like in a year,” he said.
In Cundy’s Harbor, Matt Gilley isn’t too pleased with his weak links. He first rigged 150 traps with the Plante weak links using a lazy man tuck. He estimates it took about 12 hours over two-and-a-half days to get them inserted, only to get news that Plante was recalling those links because imperfections in the material. “So I had to take them all apart and do them again. Probably 30 to 40 hours in total,” he grumbled.
Kennebunk lobsterman Laurin Brooks has tried them all — weak links, rope, and the South Shore sleeve developed in Massachusetts. “I’d say the links are the way to go,” he said. He first used 1,400-pound breaking strength rope and was not happy. “It unlays and chaffs up. It unspins like spaghetti,” Brooks said. “I towed my truck with it and it didn’t break.” He had rigged 25 traps and plans to take the rope out of all of them.
He used the South Shore sleeve in 2021 and found it “horrible.” Brooks inserted the two lines into the sleeve, which acts like a Chinese finger trap. After hauling, he found that the sleeve had stretched and would not stay tight against the lines. He ended up wrapping twine at each sleeve end to tighten it and that too did not work. “Plus the material weakens in the sun really quick. That’s not good if you have your traps sitting out in the sun for long,” he said.
Now he plans to use either Seaside or Brooks Trap weak links in all his 700 or so traps. “I haven’t had any problem hauling. I put two shims in [his 14” hauler] to get it open a little further, so the line doesn’t kick out. And I’m hauling a little slower,” he said.
Downeast in Jonesport, Jason Mills is patiently doing what he must do to keep fishing. “We don’t have much choice. Whatever we suggest they just do what they want to do,” he said, referring to NMFS. Mills has a 14-inch hauler and plans to use Plante weak links when fishing outside and 5/16” weak rope with a knot inside. He has not re-rigged his traps yet but is certainly concerned about losing traps this season. “There’s a lot of rocks,” he said of the territory where he lobsters.
Michael Hunt, president of the Corea Fisherman’s Co-op, plans to use weak links for one half of his traps this year and 3/8” rope for the other half. Hunt fishes primarily offshore around the Zones A and B boundary line using 11/32” rope now. He noted that in prior years when using the 600-pound breakaways on his endlines the breakaways would stretch and stretch before finally breaking. “I’m wondering, will these links stretch or shatter? I guess we will find out,” he said.