Lobster boats and gear populate wharves on Portland Harbor on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Chebeague Island lobsterman Jeff Putnam has been on the hunt for small plastic links that will meet new requirements set to go in effect this spring to help protect right whales.

Starting on May 1, lobstermen, depending on where they fish, will have to add inserts that will weaken their ropes or use ropes that are rated to break at 1,700 pounds of force to comply with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulations to help protect the endangered species.

The links are designed to weaken the fishing ropes that run between his buoys and lobster traps. But Putnam and other lobstermen say that they can’t find the gear they need to comply with the new rules, leaving them uncertain how they will proceed.

“I haven’t seen them at any stores yet,” Putnam said.

David Tarr, a Brooklin lobsterman, has called around to supply stores and they’re not sure when the gear is supposed to come in — possibly in a couple months.

“We can’t get the things that will meet their criteria,” he said.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has received numerous reports that there isn’t a sufficient supply of approved ropes or weak links, a spokesperson said. The department plans to share the reports with federal regulators so they’re aware of the potential challenges with fishery-wide compliance.

So far, NOAA has approved two companies’ weakened ropes. But one of the companies said their type of rope hasn’t historically been used in the Maine fishery. The other company is still waiting on federal approval for certain colors that are required for use in Maine.

To be approved, ropes need to break at the right strength and the state-specific colored ropes have not yet shown to effectively break at that amount of force, said NOAA spokesperson Andrea Gomez.

Ketcham Supply, a fishing supply store in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and the exclusive distributor of Rocky Mount Cord Company, one of the two approved rope makers, has been fielding calls from Maine lobstermen trying to get their hands on the supplies they need, said Myron Horzesky, the chief operations officer. Horzesky said that there could be a looming time crunch to make and sell supplies with the swiftly approaching May deadline.

These weakened ropes have no real other purpose outside the fishing industry, so companies often don’t want to manufacture them if they don’t have final approval.

“Nobody wants to be sitting with a million pounds of inventory that we can’t use,” Horzesky said. “It’s a tough position to be in for the fishermen, for the manufacturer, for the distributor.”

Maine’s lobster fishery has incorporated weaker lines, inserts and knots to cut down the strength of ropes in the past, and Tarr, the Brooklin fishermen, felt that these new regulations make another cut into the industry and probably wouldn’t even help the whales.

“We have breakaways on our lines already,” he said. “We feel like we’ve already complied and now they’re just changing the rules.”

With how hard it’s been to find the gear, Putnam and Tarr called on NOAA to extend the deadline for the new regulations, which also include adding more traps to trawls in certain areas and new gear marking requirements. Gov. Janet Mills made a similar request in September, and it is under consideration by NOAA.

For Tarr, it wasn’t as much about the cost to meet the new weak ropes requirements – he estimated it would run about $1,000 – as the lack of time to make the changes.

“I will comply if I can,” he said. “The problem is the timing of it. I will not physically have time to implement all these changes.”