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The Ocean at Your Doorstep
If you stand on the rocky Maine coastline, you will see immediately how the sharp edge of the Atlantic separates ocean admirers from masters of the sea. The salt air you taste is faint compared to the mouthfuls of sea spray that ship captains swallow whole. Boats rise and fall on the large swells that spread across the horizon as you watch from dry, steady land.
Bobbing between the boats are buoys, falling over and under waves and flashing their unique color markings — some solid and some striped. Lobstermen claim territory with these unique floats and harvest the waters beneath them every day. They brave harsh, cold winters, skin-leathering sun and dangerous conditions to haul their traps to the surface.
As you look out and watch the whitewashed and weathered boats breaking through the current and moving between catch, what you cannot see is the rainbow maze of rope that winds beneath them — thousands of miles of line that connect the lobstermen to their livelihood.
Ties between land and water
Rope is also what David Bird uses to make his means. Since 1998, his business, Custom Cordage in Waldoboro, Maine, has produced braided cord and rope used for boating, fishing and other areas of commercial and recreational utility.
David now has nearly 500,000 pounds of lobster fishing rope to work with — but this rope, he didn’t make.
In April 2009, hundreds of thousands of pounds of a certain type of rope, known as floating groundline rope, became restricted for lobster fishing use in most areas off the Atlantic Coast, under a regulation from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Lobstermen were required to replace their traditional floating rope with sinking rope in order to prevent marine life, specifically the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, from getting entangled in the floating ropes used for connecting traps.
The Right Whale is the world’s rarest large whale, with a North Atlantic population estimated to be only between 300 and 350 whales existing today. They inhabit inshore areas and spend a lot of time near the water’s surface, making them extremely susceptible to the risk of entanglement with fishing gear. As the whales get caught in the floating lobster trap lines, they begin to struggle and spin, which makes the lines wrap around their flippers and tail.
Reclaiming lobster lines
David was very aware of the regulation from his personal involvement in the rope industry and from his stepson, who is a lobsterman. Last spring, while sitting around the campfire with his family, David had an idea for reusing the to-be-discarded rope.
“I worked for a company back in the '80s that made doormats and I learned how to make them myself,” he says. “I heard of all this rope that was going to be collected due to the regulations, and I wondered if we could make doormats out of it.”
David already had a jig, a loom-type device, in his garage. He would make mats for friends and family, and he described them as being his signature gift.
After acquiring some of the reclaimed rope, David made some mats and took them to local festivals and fairs. He says he sold out in just a couple of hours.
“I underestimated the interest in this product,” says David. “We told the whole story and explained how the product is 100 percent reclaimed used lobster fishing rope. I would point to the ocean and tell people: ‘This rope was out in that water and was getting the lobster you ate for dinner last night.’”
Showing Maine support
David has been working with the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation to get his rope. The nonprofit group operates a buyback program to help lobstermen replace their floating rope for sinking rope.
“It was our responsibility to find a viable end-use for the rope,” says project director Laura Ludwig. “None of the rope has ever been sent to a landfill, nor has it been allowed for re-use in the ocean.”
The program, administered by GOMLF, is called The Bottom Line Project — the Maine Poly Groundline Exchange Program. Laura says the program has collected almost 1.9 million pounds of floating groundline from over a thousand Maine lobstermen, giving them over $2.6 million in federal fund vouchers toward purchasing new sinking rope.
The rope has also provided economic opportunities for small businesses and independent artisans. The success of the doormats has helped David keep people employed throughout the year. When they aren’t selling mats, they are busy making them.
“It’s got a great story,” says David. “It’s creating jobs, it’s supporting rope funds for lobster fishermen, it’s keeping the rope out of the landfills, and the mats are a colorful and environmentally conscious addition to people’s homes.”
David says that every mat is unique, and the rope used is just as it comes out of the ocean — some after years and years beneath the surface. The ropes are mildew-proof, easy to clean and ultra-durable.
Even if the closest you come to the edge of the ocean is your front door, at least you know a reclaimed rope doormat is supporting more than your just soles.