PORTLAND — When Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher presented a DMR proposal to reduce the risk that lobster gear may pose to endangered North Atlantic right whales he warned unhappy lobstermen that things could be worse.
Speaking at a meeting at The Grand last Monday, Keliher said some proponents of better protecting whales from entanglement in fishing gear were actively pushing for a rule that lobstermen use “ropeless” traps free of the vertical lines that connect the traps to marker buoys on the surface.
This week, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium is holding its annual meeting in Portland. The meeting, which includes scientists, conservation advocates, fisheries regulators and others interested in the state of the right whale, is “the only annual event during which all stakeholders have the opportunity to gather and exchange ideas and information.”
On Wednesday, the day before the start of the annual meeting, a group called the Ropeless Consortium was also scheduled to meet in Portland.
That meeting was to include presentations on “available ropeless fishing products, prototypes in development and testing results from this year, as well as discussion of progress overcoming regulatory challenges, fisheries outreach, establishing experimental fisheries, and funding opportunities and challenges.”
According to the Ropeless Consortium’s website, high right whale mortalities in 2017 has created a “significant interest in ropeless trap/pot fishing” because removing vertical buoy lines will “dramatically reduce or eliminate entanglements.”
Over the past two years or so, fishermen and conservation groups have worked with commercial partners to design practical ropeless systems and the possibility of requiring such gear, at least in some areas, has come under discussion by U.S. and Canadian fishery regulators.
As of last March, a presentation at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum reported that development of ropeless gear was still in the early stages, but work is under way.
In Washington State, a non-profit organization called SMELTS is working on ropeless technology that, according to a description on its website, replaces endlines and buoys with “inflatable bag technology” similar to what is used in marine salvage operations.
As described, trap gear is raised to the surface using a timer control or sonar to trigger inflation. On the surface, a blinking light and highly reflective tape allow fishermen to locate the gear. A radar reflector, GPS, and radio tracker are all built into the inflation module to assist in tracking the location of the gear.
According to the Ropeless Consortium, there is an “immediate need” to work with the fishing industry to test and improve ropeless retrieval and marking systems to adapt them to the specific conditions of each fishery, to get the word out about ropeless gear and to “develop regulatory procedures and enforcement capacity to allow legal ropeless gear use.”
The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s annual meeting is scheduled for Thursday and Friday, Nov. 14 and 15, at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
According to the consortium website, a “small number” of members of the press have been invited to the Thursday session.
The Ropeless Consortium meeting was closed to the press.