Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

The Road to Ropeless Fishing Gear

Photo credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Off the rocky coastline of Maine, the captivating blue ocean horizon goes hand in hand with an expanse of brightly colored lobster buoys. The buoys – numbering in the millions – provide an iconic image, bobbing as the tides shift and waves lap against coastal rock. But there’s also a living icon in Maine’s waters: the North Atlantic right whale.

Now, imagine a whale attempting to navigate this maze of fishing gear as it surfaces and dives in search of the tiny rice-sized crustaceans that sustain it. There’s a good chance that something will go wrong. The strong vertical lines that connect lobster traps on the ocean floor to buoys on the water’s surface obstruct any whale’s ability to freely roam.

In fact, entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of North Atlantic right whale mortality. Even those whales that do manage to escape drowning in these ropes suffer, burdened with intense drag as they tow gear behind them and carrying deep scars that last a lifetime.

But there is good news. The road to ropeless is underway, and this technology can benefit both the iconic right whale and New England’s fisheries.

The advantages of ropeless innovation

Innovation is embedded in American society. A little over fifty years ago, Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon, and as JFK once reminded us: we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Ropeless fishing gear may not be quite the same feat as the first person on the moon, but it offers a new frontier for how we use ocean space.

Without vertical lines in the water column, ropeless traps remove the entanglement risk that exists with traditional gear. As a result, ropeless fishing may provide opportunities for fishermen to access important fishing grounds that overlap with right whale habitat when they might otherwise be closed. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be any threat to right whales – fishing vessels would still need to proceed at less than 10 knots when whales are present – but the ability to fish in these areas is a clear incentive to use ropeless gear.

In addition to eliminating the threat of entanglement for right whales and other marine species, ropeless gear addresses another dire issue facing the ocean: derelict fishing gear.

Did you know that 10% of all debris in the ocean is fishing gear? That number is even higher in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, coming in at 46% for the amount of plastic that’s fishing related. That’s a lot of “ghost gear” – essentially abandoned plastic – floating in the ocean and damaging the marine environment. Ropeless gear, however, has acoustic ranging information so that fishermen can retrieve lost gear. If ropeless gear is lost in a storm or somehow displaced, built-in transponders can be used to locate it.

How does ropeless gear work?

There’s a range of ropeless gear technology in development that could offer a strong alternative to vertical lines in the water. Most technology allows fishermen to send an acoustic signal down to fishing traps on the ocean floor. This signal triggers the release of “guide rope” that is used to haul the trap up or the inflation of a raft that brings each trap to the surface.

This acoustic technology has a speedy release and offers a great deal of accuracy. And notably, it has been around for decades – it just hasn’t been used for fishing until recently. Fishermen have already documented their success in using some of the prototypes though, for example, while fishing for rock lobster in Australia.

Ropeless gear works, but one criticism is that the upfront cost of this gear is inhibitive. There’s a dedicated array of partners working on this and, as demand increases, the cost should only go down. Some government officials have suggested a system where the state owns the gear and loans it out to fishermen. There are even groups like the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association that have received outside funding to test ropeless gear and have onboard support for testing.

In Canada, federal officials and the New Brunswick provincial government have awarded $2 million to Canadian snow crab fishermen to test two ropeless prototypes. It’s time the U.S. government step up its funding so that fishermen alone aren’t fronting the cost to transition to ropeless gear.

Ropeless fishing gear isn’t a problem to shelve for the next generation to solve, nor is it a far-off solution. The North Atlantic right whale population can’t wait. But this gear needs to be tested by fishermen to identify what works for them.

Getting ropeless gear on the water  

For full implementation of ropeless fishing gear, a couple things need to happen.

First, in addition to necessary funding, ropeless gear will require some regulatory changes in the near future. Right now, federal law requires surfaces buoys so that other fishermen know where gear is and law enforcement can access submerged gear for inspection. Similar state laws exist, such as a regulation in Massachusetts that requires vertical lines and buoys for trap/pot fishing.

Despite existing law, NOAA Fisheries has shown a great deal of willingness to develop an Exempted Fishing Permit to test ropeless gear. And with the proper authorization and permitting, gear experimentation could be very accessible.

Second, potential gear overlays need to be addressed. In the absence of buoys, other fishermen, such as those fishing for groundfish using trawlers or scallopers using dredges, could accidentally set gear in the same spot or drag up ropeless technology.

To avoid such gear conflicts in the short term, fishermen can develop sharing agreements. These collaborative agreements are already used by fishermen to establish times and areas to fish so that gear isn’t lost.

In the long term, manufacturers are developing virtual gear marking systems. These systems will reveal gear location regardless of weather or visibility and provide a more accurate record of all gear on the bottom. Many fishermen already use GPS-based gear marking apps in some capacity. Regarding privacy concerns, these systems will ultimately allow fishermen and law enforcement to determine what specific information should be available to other user groups.

Strong support for ropeless fishing

Ropeless fishing offers a path towards coexistence for right whales and healthy fisheries, and support for the gear is growing.

Americans have a longstanding history of solving problems through collaboration and innovation. If right whale’s go extinct, it’ll be on our watch. Eliminating the threat of entanglement that right whales face because of commercial fishing gear is not only possible, it is imperative.

Ropeless gear could be a win for both fishermen and right whales. We need to get this gear into the hands of fishermen and ropes out of the way of whales. Let’s continue to pave the road for ropeless – together.

Michael Anderson is a legal intern at Conservation Law Foundation.


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