ELLSWORTH, Maine — A steady stream of pickup trucks and trailers flowed behind the Maine Coast Mall on Monday as area lobster fishermen took advantage of the last-ditch float rope exchange.
The two-day exchange, run by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, was designed to ease the financial burden on fishermen from a new federal law that goes into effect next month. The law requires lobstermen to use sinking rope in order to protect the endangered right whale from getting entangled in the old type of rope, which floats between traps.
Fishermen came throughout the day Monday to drop off their old float rope. At times the line of pickups stretched around the back of the mall and into the parking lot out front. The fishermen were bringing in the type of rope they’ve been using for years, and most were not particularly happy about it.
“It’s bull—-,” said one fisherman.
Some expressed concern that the new rope won’t last nearly as long as the float rope and were worried about the ongoing expense they’ll face. They also were frustrated because they don’t think the ground line will be effective in protecting the whales.
Under the new federal law, lobster fishermen have to begin using the ground line after April 5. Unlike the float rope, which floated toward the surface between traps, ground line sinks to the bottom, reducing the likelihood that whales will become entangled in it.
The federally funded GOMLF exchange program provides the lobster fishermen with $1.40 in vouchers for each pound of float rope turned in. The voucher is good toward the purchase of the new ground line, which costs more than $2 a pound.
Most of the collected rope is trucked to Framingham, Mass., and is recycled into agricultural products such as plant pots, said Pat White, who tallied the weight of each fisherman’s exchange. A very small amount stays in Maine and is used to make doormats.
So far, the foundation has collected almost 1 million pounds of the float rope and handed out about $1.3 million in vouchers. According to White, the two-day exchange in Ellsworth is expected to fill seven tractor-trailers with about 200,000 pounds of float rope.
But the federal funding for the exchange is running out.
“We’re hoping for more funding,” White said.
The fishermen also hope the exchange program will continue. Many said they still have a lot of float rope that they haven’t turned in.
“This is my third time at the buyback, and I’ve only switched out half my gear,” said Mike Grindle of Brooksville. “It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a lot of work and a lot of money.”
Grindle, like many of the fishermen, is concerned that the ground line will be damaged by dragging on the ocean floor and will have to be replaced after a short time. There’s also concern that when the rope breaks, they’ll lose the traps that are left on the bottom.
“I wouldn’t mind so much if it lasted as long as this,” he said, pointing to the float rope he’d just dropped off. “If this was a one-time thing, it wouldn’t bother me that much. But this rope isn’t going to last more than two years.”
Bruce Fernald of Islesford, who used the ground line this year on one string of 15 traps, expressed the same concern. Float rope, he said, will last seven, eight, 10 years, while the ground line won’t last even half that time.
“The worst thing is that you know it’s not going to last,” he said. “The other stuff, I’ve used for one year and it’s already half worn-out. In this kind of economy and as expensive as everything is, we don’t need one more expense thrown at us.”
Many fishermen have said they’ve never seen a right whale, and most, like Patrick Faulkingham of Winter Harbor, don’t believe changing the rope will have any effect on the whales.
“The whales are 70 miles off, I’m fishing 10 miles — 60 miles is a big difference,” he said. “It’s like somebody seeing a wolf in Bangor and saying you’ve got to park your car in Winter Harbor so you don’t hit it. It’s not going to make any difference.”
The rope exchange continues in Ellsworth today and then moves to Rockland for another two-day session Thursday and Friday. That is the last exchange scheduled.