A North Atlantic right whale appears at the surface on March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

Federal fishery regulators said Wednesday that enforcement of new fishing gear regulations will initially focus on helping fishermen get in line with new measures rather than doling out civil penalties.

Supply chain issues have dogged the rollout of the new regulations, something that the regulators acknowledged in their announcement, less than two weeks before the rules aimed at making the Gulf of Maine safer for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale go into effect.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Wednesday that it would be implementing a “graduated enforcement effort.”

“I want to assure fishermen who are making good faith efforts to comply with these new measures but are not able to procure the compliant gear that we understand the difficulty of the situation,” said Michael Pentony, the Greater Atlantic Regional Administrator with NOAA Fisheries.

By May 1, lobstermen are supposed to weaken the fishing lines that run from their buoys on the surface to their traps on the seafloor using plastic links or special rope that breaks with 1,700 pounds of force. This is intended to make it easier for right whales to break through the lines should they ever get entangled, a potentially lethal prospect.

Depending on where the fishermen fish, they may also need to disperse their traps across fewer fishing lines and add new region-identifying markers to their gear.

The new requirements are part of a slew of rules crafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that, despite vocal protests from the lobster industry and numerous calls for extended deadlines, are going forward as scheduled.

One of the biggest hurdles to compliance has been the lack of the weak plastic links. The links first started to show up on shelves earlier this year, but still aren’t available on a wide enough scale, lobster industry officials said.

“We’re still finding supplies of materials to be pretty minimal,” said Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Stonington lobsterman Sherman Hutchins II said that even though many lobstermen don’t think the new rules will help the species rebound because right whales are rarely found in Maine fishing grounds, he and his peers are doing their best to meet the May 1 deadline.

“It’s all stuff that the fishermen may or may not agree with, but we always end up complying with our best effort,” he said.

Hutchins got 200 links and four coils of weak rope and planned to go through his hundreds of offshore traps to make the necessary adjustments leading up to the new regulations. But to fish at full capacity, he estimated that he’d need between 400 and 600 more links.

“I’m still waiting for more of them,” Hutchins said.

The new rules will be a massive change for the fishery and, before Pentony’s announcement, McCarron said she was still getting a lot of calls from fishermen looking for clarification on what applies to them.

NOAA’s plan to focus on compliance assistance rather than penalties will stay in place until the agency has determined that localized supply chain issues with the new gear have been sufficiently resolved, according to Pentony.

Maine Marine Patrol, which enforces the rules along with NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard, has been engaging the fishing industry on the issue and will continue to conduct outreach and provide compliance assistance, said Maine Marine Patrol Col. Jay Carroll.

Though there is still some lingering confusion and lack of links, McCarron said lobstermen were working in earnest to meet the new regulations, even if they don’t believe in them.

“From my perspective everybody is knocking themselves out to try and comply,” she said.