By Jordan Andrews
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND — In their latest effort to protect endangered right whales, federal regulators have released a plan to increase the use of on-demand — or ropeless — fishing gear, an initiative that includes expanded testing of the new technology.
In an effort to address the two main causes of human-induced whale mortality — vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released rules to reduce ship speeds and its “Ropeless Roadmap” to prepare for widespread adoption of ropeless fishing.
The vertical lines that connect strings of traps on the ocean floor to buoys on the surface can get caught on a whale’s fins or in its mouth as it swims, leading to death in some cases. There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales, according to NOAA.
On-demand fishing gear would eliminate the need for the vertical lines in the water until the lobster trap, pot or gillnet is being hauled. Different technologies are under development now. Some include flotation devices that are triggered by an acoustic signal to return the gear or rope end to the surface when the fishing boat returns to collect it. Others use timers to release the rope and buoy to the surface, reducing the amount of time the rope is in the water column. And in a lower-tech option available in some cases, the traps or other gear can simply be removed by a grappling hook. The location of the gear can be communicated to boats above by acoustic signal.
Lobstermen in Maine, who have always relied on the colorful floating buoys to show the location of gear below, have long been sounding the alarm about ropeless fishing. Besides the added expense, distrust of the technology cause many to oppose any efforts to bring it into widespread use. If the signal doesn’t work, and a string of traps, called trawls, cannot be retrieved, that could mean well over $100,000 lost for a 50-trap trawl. If the signal doesn’t communicate well with other vessels, trawls may be set on top of one another, leading to more lost gear if the traps become entangled or if the hauling rope breaks under the added strain.
“They say, ‘Well, it’s all going to be on your cellphone,’” said Doug McLennan, a longtime fisherman from South Thomaston, “but we don’t have cell coverage a lot of places and some people are not very good with computers. Trying to take a simple thing of just setting a trap and going to haul it, and then to have to try to do that on a computer screen and not interfere with other people’s — it’s just not going to work.”
But others urge patience for the kinks in the technology to be worked out and for production to increase and costs to come down. They see the potential for ropeless fishing to solve a number of problems. It could mean less rope to purchase and time to spend configuring it — regulations to protect right whales enacted this year require complex weak-link configurations and markings so that whales can break free if they become entangled and the origin of the gear can be determined if a whale is found entangled. It also could save the time and expense of purchasing and painting new buoys every time one gets lost when it is struck by a passing boat or barge.
But there are many others who feel there is reason for skepticism.
Andrea Tomlinson, founder of the New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance, said many of the participants in the group’s deckhand-to-captain training program have expressed apprehension about the experimental technology, and their main concern is gear conflict, not only from other fixed-gear fishermen but from draggers and trawlers who would also need to know where traps and gillnets are set without the benefit of buoys.
And even though there is a public comment period on the Ropeless Roadmap, she said fishermen do not feel as though they’re being heard, especially after the recent line-marking and weak-rope regulations went into effect this year.
“A lot of fishermen commented,” she said. “Maine Lobstermen’s Association organized, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association was really integral in getting fishermen there at these public hearings to comment and give testimony and you know, those regulations went into place, regardless.”
The Ropeless Roadmap notes that there is a precedent for federal funding to assist with the costs of regulations to protect marine species, and suggested that costs will drop with increased innovation, demand and production.
Zach Klyver, co-founder of Blue Planet Strategies, based in Augusta and Bar Harbor, agrees. An ocean conservation research and science company, Blue Planet is working with gear manufacturers, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and local fishermen to test different types of on-demand gear with lobster and gillnet fishermen. Currently, the devices can cost up to $7,000, he said, but prices will come down significantly once they are produced commercially. There is already a very simple buoy release device that goes for $300, developed by Sub Sea Sonics of San Diego.
Blue Planet is working with fishermen testing other ropeless traps, including one developed by the Sea Mammal Education Learning Technology Society in Washington state. The trap uses compressed air that fills an inflatable airbag that brings the gear to the surface. The device emits a signal that is communicated through Bluetooth to a cellphone or tablet app. No cellphone signal is necessary, Klyver said.
While some are very open about their involvement in the testing, particularly fishermen in Massachusetts, Klyver said, the fishermen he is working with in Maine are keeping a low profile to avoid being ostracized by others in the industry.
Blue Planet has an exemption permit that allows them to test the units on one end of a trawl, while the other still has a compliant end line and buoy. Klyver said he has had no issues with gear conflicts on the unmarked end. They plan to test ropeless trawls in cruise ship channels coming into and out of Portland and Bar Harbor where there is little fishing gear.
“We’re very excited about the technology and have had a lot of success,” he said. “There still are things that need to be figured out to improve it and that’s why it’s so important that we have a number of fishermen that are working with us to see what the potential is.”
The Ropeless Roadmap lays out four steps that need to be accomplished before the technology can be widely adopted. First is continued technological development and testing. Second is developing ways to resolve gear conflicts. Three projects to test geolocation software are underway or planned for this summer in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In addition, the Maine Department of Marine Resources is researching an underwater acoustic signaling geolocation system for communication between vessels and gear. The third step is to expand ropeless fishing studies with fishermen to test both the on-demand technologies and the methods developed for resolving gear conflicts.
The fourth step is to address regulatory changes needed to allow on-demand fishing. Several layers of current regulations require surface markings of fixed bottom gear. Though the plan does not offer suggestions of regulations that would require adoption of the technology, it provides some insight into how future regulations might be changed to require ropeless fishing in certain areas.
The Ropeless Roadmap suggests on-demand fishing could be a solution where entanglement risk is highest, noting that currently 20 percent of fixed gear is located in federal waters, but represents 70 percent of the risk to right whales. Narrowing down further, it calculates risk in units called “line months,” or one vertical line in the water for one month, and determined that 50 percent of entanglement risk could be reduced by eliminating 25,000 line months, which represents only 0.6 percent of the total line months in use, in targeted areas. To get to a 90 percent risk reduction would entail a 320,000 line month reduction, or 7.8 percent.
How these calculations would translate to regulation is unclear, but NOAA presented the Ropeless Roadmap to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, the body in charge of developing new regulations to reduce risk to whales, at its recent meeting.
NOAA will be accepting public comments on the roadmap through the end of 2022.