There are more than one million vertical lines off the North American coast of the Atlantic Ocean used by the lobster and crab fishing industry (Hayes et al., 2018). Pot/trap fishing gear, specifically the vertical lines attached to traps, poses an ongoing danger to both mariners and marine mammals, such as right whales.
In fact, entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of death for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW), Eubalaena glacialis. With an estimated population of about 400 individuals and only 100 breeding-age females, the species lies on the brink of extinction (Pettis et al., 2020, NOAA, 2019a). Since June 2017, thirty right whales have died, nearly twice as many as the previous five years (NOAA, 2020).
Since 1986, researchers and fisheries managers have identified geographic areas “of special concern” with regard to entanglements of right whales: the Gulf of Maine (ME), the Georges Bank (MA), and the Great South Channel (MA), which are also home to the American lobster and a robust commercial pot/trap fishery (Prescott and Best, 1986). In the past five years, entanglement has also been an increasing concern in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, related to their snow crab fishery (Daoust et al., 2017). Of the right whales remaining, 85 percent have been entangled at least once, and over 50 percent show signs of having been entangled more than once (Knowlton et al., 2012; Pettis et al., 2020). These entanglements not only lead to whale deaths but also decrease whales’ ability to produce calves, further endangering the species (Sharp et al., 2019).
Despite the recognition of gear entanglements as a significant threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, efforts to modify gear, such as sinking ground lines and weak links, have not eliminated this threat.(Myers et al., 2019) The most effective way to reduce or eliminate fisheries-related entanglements and mortality would be to reduce lobster fishing in the same geographic areas as marine animals, a principle known as “reduction of effort” (Smolowitz, 1978b). Any reduction in the number of buoys, endlines, and traps would lead to a reduction in entanglements, gear loss, and navigational hazards (Smolowitz, 1978a; Johnson, 2000; Macfadyen et al., 2009).
Introducing ropeless fishing gear is the natural solution: it would reduce vertical lines in the water without reducing lobster fishing, particularly in the areas of concern. Ropeless fishing gear is an innovative technology that removes the need for buoys and vertical lines in the water, except during active retrieval. The gear combines regular pot/trap fishing with a sophisticated acoustic release system that allows fishermen to retrieve their gear without the need of a vertical line and buoy connecting the trap to the surface.
The concept of ropeless gear for pot/trap fishing was first introduced in 1998 when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued its first contract to develop an acoustic release system (DeAlteris, 1999). Subsequently, ropeless fishing developed and multiple innovative and viable systems were created. In fact, after more than 20 years of innovation and sustained research, and thanks to both private and federal funding, many technological developments have moved the market forward from what was merely a theoretical concept to a real solution to marine mammal entanglements.
-Kim Sawicki is a Fulbright-Schuman Program Alumni affiliated with the University of Connecticut, the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and the Marine Institute in the Republic of Ireland. In addition to her ongoing research, the author fosters informed discussion of coastal community and cetacean conservation through innovation on her website, Sustainable Seas. Since November 2018, she has served as a liaison between eight underwater technology companies and entrepreneurs that have mature products or are actively developing ropeless technologies. She is a volunteer for the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, and the State of Connecticut’s Region 4 Incident Management Team (since 2010). She is one of the founding members of the Irish Entanglement Alliance, and with the guidance of the gear manufacturers listed within the report, she advised the New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) gear research group on the standardization of research methodologies for ropeless. Currently, she is involved in ongoing research in Georgia, Ireland, and the UK on the implementation of ropeless fishing technologies and recently completed a pilot study with Scottish creel fishers.
Contributing authors and collaborators: James A.R. McFarlane, Michael Shegog, John Fiotakis, Rich Riels, Jacob Wolf, Maxwell Poole, Aaron Stevenson, Marco Flagg, Robert Morris, Michael Stocker, Hannah Myers, Edward Wyman,Cormac Hondros-MacCarthy, Ted Zhu, Russ Mullins.
Author’s Note: In the interest of hastening the continued progress of ropeless fishing, in November of 2018, eight companies that have either a mature product or are actively developing ropeless technologies formed an informal working group after the Ropeless Consortium meeting trough which they collaborate and share data through a central researcher. The author and Fulbright student, affiliated with the University of Connecticut, the University of St. Andrews, and the Marine Institute, has functioned as a liaison for information gathering to answer many of the questions posed by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction team. That data can be viewed in the full version of this document, available below.
The opinions, calculations, and summary points are those of the author, only, but were the result of conversations, data sharing, and collaboration with many of the above listed parties. Several of the above mentioned parties were directly quoted in this report and are being listed as coauthors or collaborators.
“If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things that others do not. I think if others had the opportunity to witness what I’ve seen in my lifetime…I would not seem like a radical at all. We have a chance to fix things.”
-Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle. Mission Blue
It has taken several days for me to sit down and write this post. This is not because I don’t know what to say, but because writing the words will make it real.
A year ago, I didn’t even know what a North Atlantic Right Whale was. Since that time, I have spent countless hours researching these animals, their families, their food, their habitats, their mating and migratory behaviors. I have also studied their necropsy reports, lab results, and a multitude of photos that exist of these animals and their babies. Too often, the images I see show them sliced apart or strangled by various fishing lines and lost gear, washed ashore as nothing more than deflated sacks of bone. The images of gaping wounds from propellers or a pathologist’s knife are becoming so common that now I feel each birth, and each loss, as intimately as if they were my own family.
We have lost 6 of a critically endangered species so far this season. Four of them were female. We know that there are less than 100 breeding females in this tiny population that now numbers only 412. And this number only stands if all 7 of the calves born in Georgia and Florida survive their first year of life.
I will add more to this post as information becomes available, but please take a moment to pay tribute to these six individual animals whose lives enriched our coastal waters for too short of a time.
We still have a chance to fix things.
-Kim Sawicki, 1 July 2019
Please consider a donation to the Center for Coastal Studies, an organization that does incredible work for our North Atlantic Right Whales, as well as our ecosystem-at-large.
We know that Punctuation, a 38-year-old grandmother, had been previously entangled in fishing gear before and survived. We also know that she was struck twice by boat propellers and lived. We know that she had at least 8 calves that also had successful births. We also know that she traveled to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence this summer, was struck by a third boat, and was killed.
We know that Comet, 34, was a grandfather as well. It has been determined by his autopsy, completed June 28th, 2019 by by the Marine Animal Response Society, DFO, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, the Atlantic Veterinary College, the province and the Canadian Coast Guard that his death was also, likely due to ship strike.
We know that Wolverine, whose cause of death has yet to be determined, was only 9 years old. This is the equivalent of a 9 year-old human child dying of “unknown” causes. Wolverine was named for the propeller gashes visible along his spine. He also had been the victim of a series of entanglements.
We know that Clipper, who was necropsied today on the Gaspe Penisula, was the victim many years ago of a previous ship strike that left her with a clipped tail fluke. She was first seen in 2004, and had likely been a mother twice. Clipper was reported as of July 5th, 2019 to have also been killed by a ship strike.
No. 3815 was first seen as a calf off New Jersey in May 2008. She is the daughter of Harmony, No. 3115, who was the daughter of No. 1815. She was only 12 years old, and was just entering the age of sexual maturity.
No. 3329 was likely born in December 2002 off Georgia. She is the daughter of Viola No. 2029 who was the daughter of Ipanema, No. 1629. She was also quite photogenic.
Below you will find links and videos highlighting the current manufacturers of several different styles of this innovative gear. Not all of the gear videos are the most current, as some of the designs are protected under non-disclosure agreements with the author or patents pending. As newer videos become available, this page will be updated. I have also included links to contact the manufacturers directly under each video.
The systems are presented in alphabetical order. Feel free to contact the author for any questions.
Past research has indicated an undeniable benefit to the use of innovative ropeless gear within pot and trap fisheries with a removal of end lines and buoy lines. (Baumgartner et al., 2018.; Werner et al., 2015; Lent, 2017; FAO, 2018) These innovative approaches to end line management allow for the lowered risk of bycatch and entanglements of critically endangered species, most particularly that of the North Atlantic Right Whale.
It is imperative that a better understanding of the benefits and potential gains be attained if technology such as this is to be affordable and accepted for widespread use for pot/trap fisheries. Due the innate differences of individual fisheries, it is well accepted that there will likely not exist one perfect ropeless technology that will address all of the individual needs of all fisheries. Many of the current designs have several decades of successful use in other applications, serving to catalyze and invigorate new manufacturers of gear, as well as thoughtful adaptations of existing devices.
As with any proposed change to fishing technique or technology, there has historically been a period of resistance, research, and adjustment. This period has been unusually long for ropeless gear, and thus far, much of the discourse between management and industry partners has been laden with untested hypothetical concerns regarding functionality and implementation.
Valid concerns provided by fishers with decades of harvesting experience have not been reasonably resolved with the limited testing that has been completed by manufacturers, environmental non-government organizations, or fisheries partners. To ensure the continued success of a co-management approach to fisheries practices, priority needs to be given to further this testing.
“Where wisdom reigns, there is no conflict between thinking and feeling.” –Carl Gustav Jung
Civic engagement and communication are the most vital link to understanding those factors that drive successful policy change. Immersing oneself in local cultural activities can work to promote the position of all scientists working in marine conservation. Cerebral comprehension of issues that concern fishing communities when faced with change is not enough to inform decision makers, instead, having a “finger on the pulse” of that which makes a community strong is. Often, understanding comes from rapport that develops through identifying shared interests and commonalities.
Spending quality time with those lives you will affect through suggested policy changes ensures that you have the opportunity to not only study the economic impacts these policies can and do have on these communities, but also the cultural implications and experiences that are realized.
Mark Baumgartner’s presentation at the 2019 Ropeless Consortium meeting in Portland, ME inspired me to focus my fieldwork efforts on three key points he made regarding ropeless gear testing.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
“Ropeless gear needs to be safe for fishermen to use and safe for whales.”-M. Baumgartner
I have spent two years working directly with nearly all of the ropeless gear manufacturers to conduct hundreds of dock, inshore, and offshore trials of their products with fishers. Before any introduction to ropeless gear onboard a vessel commences, I spend time observing the regular daily workings of boats in the fishery I am working within. My observations and resultant questions are posed to individual fishers in an effort to create a research design that is both safe for researchers and fishers, as well as functional for effective data collection. I use a strict tiered protocol that involves researchers and fishers learning the gear dockside, then teaching its use to others, and finally progressing to a level of “mastery.” Once I am confident they can work without mentor observation on the dock, they progress to learning on vessels. This tiered approach is then repeated onboard fishing vessels while underway. Once they progress to on-board mastery, they are free to work independently and without safety lines when the boat is functioning in a research capacity, while additional and concurrent tasks are added, such as virtual gear marking. Finally, a third tier of mastery is reached during normal fishing activities. Until this level of mastery is reached, I feel an individual is not truly proficient in using ropeless gear in a fisheries application, which could lead to discouragement of use by fishermen, a belief of inefficacy, unsafe fishing practices, added risk to marine mammals, and the loss of the device and/or fishing gear.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
“Testing of ropeless gear should be done by an independent third-party working directly with fishermen that have been properly trained to use the gear.” -M. Baumgartner
I wholeheartedly agree with concept of third-party testing of ropeless gear and that both the third-party researchers and fishermen should be properly and thoroughly trained before the use of gear on their own. Many difficulties have been experienced by research projects in the last year due to COVID restrictions, but for the safety of those testing gear, as well as the safety of the fisher’s gear attached to ropeless devices, creative methods have been implemented to try and negate the loss of in-person training. Additionally, this training is important to ensure objective results from these trials, as human error or lack of experience is the number one cause of ropeless malfunctions, to date.
Mark’s call to action for independent third party research was further cemented for me in January 2020, when I surveyed the nine Scottish fishers I trained in ropeless fishing gear proficiency, and asked them who they would prefer to to engage with in a learning exchange. The only consensus reached was that they would prefer to learn from an independent researcher. The next most favored option was learning from other fishermen. (Figure 1). I have been fortunate to have functioned in the field thus far as an independent researcher, without an affiliation to any manufacturers, universities, for-profit groups, etc. that could be seen as contributing bias to results. In my experience, this has led to a robust and candid conversation on all topics ropeless, and critical to understanding the challenges and fears fishers express about the technology.
“Information is not knowledge.” ― Albert Einstein
Aka Why does any of this matter? Human factors engineering!
We must “Develop ropeless gear testing protocols through harmonization of multiple manufacturers’ protocols through a collaborating working group (what metrics need to be measured).”-M. Baumgartner
To continue the promising work with innovative fishing gears that reduce bycatch, the relationship of fisher to gear to innovation needs to be studied, this is done through the Human Factors Engineering process. Fortunately, there are MANY great models in place that can be used to help move this forward. Unbeknownst to many, it is this approach that grew out of the processes that have allowed humans to enjoy modern conveniences like the automobile, the home computer, and cell phone. To that end, I initiated an informal researcher/manufacturer working group during the 2018 Ropeless Consortium meeting to attempt to answer this need, as well as other stated needs by regulators regarding ropeless gear. Mark Baumgartner (WHOI) echoed this need and after 2019 year’s consortium meeting, NEFSC staff began a group that has met in different configurations to share approaches to research design. As of today, February 17, 2021, no standard testing protocol or measurable metrics consensus has been reached. I firmly believe a full-scale ropeless trial should include a high-quality, refined industry & fisher recommended minimal data set; such as the one utilized in recent gear research performed in the South Atlantic black sea bass pot fishery. This will allow fishers and management in other parts of the world to weigh in on what issues are important for their conditions and needs, and will help guide R&D work needed for adaptation and optimal marine mammal, fisher, and gear safety.
“Opinion is usually something which people have when they lack comprehensive information.” ― Idries Shah
I agree with Mark’s belief that these harmonized protocols are needed to develop a clear understanding of the functionality of these gears and should be utilized during all research efforts and finally that,
These tests also need to serve the role of demonstrating the technology to many stakeholders such as other fishermen, regulators, conservationists, public; and this needs to be done for as many gear types as possible.-M. Baumgartner
Without a standard approach to data collection and reporting, it seems unlikely that our widespread efforts will produce the required faith by those stakeholders who are at the center of this work. While preparatory pilots and gear demos help establish excellent working relationships, our fisher collaborators depend on their research partners to develop strong and informed goals that generate concrete, tangible, and meaningful results. Without a clear and collaborative path forward in our efforts, many of these well-intentioned pilots (particularly those which are fisher-funded or rely on vessel, fuel, and crew time donation) could suffer, and we, as researchers, could actually be damaging these precious working relationships. For those who see these technologies as an opportunity, or even a necessity, it’s vital they have the utmost faith in our abilities, and we have a reasonable expectation of what can be accomplished to that end.
The trust placed in us by fishers is paramount; we have an obligation to earn and maintain that.
I arrived home Wednesday morning at 530am after another sixty straight days of ropeless research. Another 4,000 miles on the car, and tracing the nearly exact migration path of a North Atlantic right whale. And while we worked with some of the most experienced and creative pot fishers on the East Coast, the news of two more entangled right whales reached us.
The feelings I go through when another entanglement is reported, in order: sadness, anger, then frustration. After about a day, those feelings settle into a doubling down of determination. It was a new experience for our team to be together, and actively fishing with the gear when this news broke. As heartbreaking as it was, we found a renewed sense of purpose and a reserve of energy that pushed us through the last back-breaking weeks of work. The video below was a product of this process, and all the credit goes to Joel Cohen and videographer, Brad Sawicki. They are not only incredibly resourceful around a boat, but also pretty handy with a camera!
While there are larger, more influential groups researching these gears, we are proud of the way we operate. Our data collection is swift, certain, and powered by one of the most brilliant minds we know, Virgil Zetterlind. Our methods and preparation are second to none. Our desire for understanding and communicating with those whose livelihoods are being directly impacted by the co-occurrence of North Atlantic right whales and pot fisheries is earnest and appreciated. We work hard, all hours of the day and night, for no pay, because we believe that we can make a difference.
You can, too.
We have family, friends, and colleagues that support us with words, actions, and even donations…Without them, this trip would have been impossible. We are always looking for volunteers and partners to help us in this mission. With COVID times upon us, many aren’t able to come haul traps and pots with us in other states, or mount cameras on gear or in traps, or pack bait, or fill ice…but we will gladly hold that spot for you next time.
Here is an amazing video made for us by the Ullapool Sea Savers Ropeless Fishing Ambassador, Caillin, about fishing “entanglement free!”
Fisherwoman Barbie is part of a fantastic set of to-scale models that accompany us on our global outreach missions. These functional models of both gear, whales, and humans help make the issue more accessible to people while being much easier to pack!
Happy Birthday, Caillin!! The whales and fishermen thank you so much!!
A fundraiser organized by Sustainable Seas to benefit the Large Whale Disentanglement Team of British Divers Marine Life Rescue. Photos and videos were provided courtesy of BDMLR staff and volunteers, Kim Sawicki of Sustainable Seas, and Nick McCaffrey of South Spear Media.
Fishing gear designed to protect whales from entanglement is being trialled off Scotland’s coast.
Whales can become caught in rope that runs between shellfish creels on the seabed to a buoy on the surface.
The new “ropeless creels” have this main line in a container along with a buoy and these are lowered to the seabed with the creels.
The buoy is released electronically and rises to the surface, bringing the rope with it so the creels can be retrieved.
The technology is being developed initially for fisheries in the US and Canada where endangered North Atlantic right whales have died in entanglements.
Those involved in the trials, including the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) – a coalition of conservation groups, rescue teams and fishermen – say Scotland’s coast offers ideal conditions for testing ropeless creels.
Scientist Kim Sawicki, who is working on the US-EU funded research, said: “Right now a lot of fisheries are suffering closures both in the US and Canada due to entanglement issues with cetaceans, particularly the North Atlantic right whale.
“Fishermen are losing money and are not able to feed their families.”
The researcher said creel fishing in the Gulf of Maine alone could involve one million main lines.
“A group of manufacturers have come together to design systems that store the rope at depth so that it is not a risk to whales,” she added.
Creel fishing usually involves lowering a fleet of 30 to 50 weighted-down pots to the seabed. The pots are strung together on rope and the last creel has a line going from it to a buoy on the surface.
The buoy aids in the retrieval of the creels, but also acts as a marker to other fishermen to where the gear is.
Bally Philip, a Kyle of Lochalsh-based creel fisherman working with the project in Scotland, said the project team was taking on board fishermen’s suggested improvements to the ropeless system.
He said: “We use the buoy to see where the gear is, so we need to develop the corresponding tracking system and also a way of advising other fishermen to where the ‘ropeless’ gear is. All that has still to be developed.
“But there is a real urgency to develop this stuff because all around the world there are places where endangered species are getting entangled in fishing gear.”
She said that in the past year in Scotland, there had been about 12 incidents of entanglements with two as classed as “chronic” due to the injuries caused to the animals involved.
She added: “Fishermen want to help. They work alongside these large animals and are devastated when an entanglement happens.”
A very very huge thank you to Iain and Brian for coming out to share our story!You can learn more about the entanglement issue in Scotland by clicking on one of the links below!
One of the most critical aspects to the objective collection and analysis of data requires that bias be eliminated wherever and whenever possible. This means testing the gear in locations where conditions, both sea and social, present no obstacles to fishers providing feedback on design and applicability to their practices.
To ensure the continued success of a co-management approach to fisheries practices, priority needs to be given to the design of more thoughtful experimental trials that allow the technology alone to be reviewed. To date, gear testing, trials, and demonstrations have not been conducted in a standardized manner, making data difficult to review and reach scientific consensus. It is essential to create a proficient methodology considering the equipment, preparation, deployment, and retrieval of the gear, which can only be accomplished through collaboration between researchers, gear developers, and fishermen.
Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing all of the feedback from those involved in the Scottish creel ropeless fishing survey as a series of separate posts. I will focus on different aspects of the survey each week to allow for thoughtful processing by others of their comments and observations and would encourage any and all respectful feedback be submitted by others.
Fishers have confidence in themselves and others to Learn & usE ropeless technology
These results are from anonymous survey conducted with eight Scottish creel fishermen, seven of who had trialed and/or actively fished with two ropeless fishing devices (Fiomarine’s Fiobuoy® and Desert Star Systems, ARC-1,) and this researcher. (September 2019-January 2020.) The eighth fisher was educated on the systems, but was not able to trial the gears, and the ninth participant was a marine biologist who was invited by a fisher to participate in ropeless training who is also a member of British Diver’s Marine Life Rescue (disentanglement team) who actively worked the gears with a fisher.
Because the cost of ropeless retrieval technology has been widely discussed in most previous trials that fishermen have participated in, it was not a primary focus of this outreach effort. In fact, many of the comments from past published surveys, research, reports, and articles surrounding the testing of gear pertain to cost, indicating that fishers knew that the technology represented an additional cost to them. While transparency is vital to maintaining trusting relationships between researchers and fishermen, this repetitive discussion of cost likely has led to a negative bias on survey and study results. Finally, fishers have expressed a reluctance participate in surveys or testing (not just related to ropeless) and unintentionally advance new or restrictive regulations to their fishery.
Instead, during these trials, the researcher chose to discuss the costs affiliated with fishing with end lines and buoys, and how gear loss effects fishers and the general public in a variety of ways prior to any discussion of prices per unit.
What did Fishers have to say about the gear?
The following statements are offered as a sample of the feedback received. Overall, the qualitative data affirmed technical success and identified ongoing challenges:
“I was really impressed…A few wee tweaks, I think it would be ready to go really. There’s all these little subtleties, but once you get the hang of it, there’s not much to it
“We’ve seen six bits of gear, mostly buoys, on the shore right here; I’d argue if it was ropeless, there wouldn’t be any.”
“The obvious advantage is removing the whole entanglement issue, but also for us, we lose quite a lot of gear here, to either other fishermen or boats, and we get our gear dragged about quite a bit by the weather, so if the buoys are deep enough, those things aren’t issues at all. Sometimes, with big swell, the buoys will pick up the last creel, and it walks up the fleet and picks up the next creel, so you end up with this ball of creels, picking up the next as they go. If you had ropeless gear, that wouldn’t be an issue.”
An Introduction to DEVELOPING, MAINTAINING, AND LEVERAGING SUSTAINABLY MINDED CONSUMERS to Care about Ropeless Fishing…
At the 2019 Seafood Expo: North America, Globescan presented “What Consumers Really Want: The Future of Sustainable Seafood.” Associate Director, Abbie Curtis O’Reilly informed several hundred industry stakeholders on a through survey done of North American seafood consumers (n=10,477) which found that 67% believe that seafood consumption should come only from sustainable sources, while 81% agree that seafood supplies need to be protected for future generations. It was also discovered that “pollution of the oceans is the most concerning ocean issue” for consumers, followed by overfishing.
When pressed further, 70% of those asked (n=4,155) stated they would like to hear more from their seafood suppliers of choice on the sustainability of their products.
Perhaps then, a goal for future marketing for suppliers could stress how they address the issue of both marine debris as well as ghost fishing. This will help illustrate the benefits ropeless fishing has to the environment, which in turn, can help make it more important to today’s consumers of seafood. Not everyone may know that fishing presents a danger to whales, but everyone these days knows how full of trash our oceans are. (Morris et al., 2018)
Further, she offered a plan to engage consumers in acting on their beliefs when purchasing products that are sustainably sourced. There are four key steps to this approach;
Educate – use popular channels to maintain a high awareness of ocean sustainability issues.
Equip – people care about independent certification, but lack awareness of ecolabels when shopping.
Excite – messaging ensuring protection of fish for future generations can help to inspire.
Engage – the power of partnerships is key to engaging the mainstream. (Morris et al., 2018)
Of equal importance is networking and engagement with the seafood wholesalers, dealers, retailers, and restaurant industry representatives. Alliances with organizations such as Sea Pact and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership will be critical to ensuring that ropeless fishing technology and the vast improvements it can offer pot and trap fishing to reach higher sustainability goals are well-understood and communicated within industry.
Why is this important for ropeless fishing?
Fishers are justifiable exhausted by the many measures they have been forced to undertake over the last two decades, at great expense to themselves, and with seemingly little or no benefit to whales. (Pace et al, 2014) None of these measures have been proven to reduce death or severe injury.
For those of us who fight for these technologies to be given a chance and further developed, the onus lies with us to now demonstrate not only a conservation need for these gears, but desire from consumers to support this type of fishing. This change requires a major restructuring of thought, a reorganization on deck of gear, and a substantial collaborative effort of all stakeholders, with priority given to funding for gear.
Kim Sawicki- November, 2019
This article was taken largely from a document that highlights the findings in the aforementioned presentation, an altered form of that presentation was found to share with this audience. Questions may be addressed to the author, or directly to the contact listed below.
An interview with Fulbright Fellow Kim Sawicki published November 20, 2019 by Francine Kershaw
Meet Kim Sawicki, an American scientist currently living and working in Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship. Her goal? To advance the development of ropeless technology and help bring about its regular use in pot and trap fisheries around the world. Kim’s vision is to end whale entanglements while also preserving the fishing communities she works with. Here, Kim shares some insights into her work…
What is ropeless gear and what inspired you to work on advancing this technology?
In July of 2018, while in search of a sponsor for my PhD work, I met with Dr. Michael Moore of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I will never forget when he drew for me a trawl of pots book-ended in vertical lines and buoys and expressed to me that the greatest threat to the incredibly endangered North Atlantic right whales existed within those endlines. He told me if there was something as an epidemiologist I really wanted to do to help truly make a difference for whales, it would be to address this issue through the research and improvement of ropeless fishing gear. This is how I tell people I was “roped into ropeless research.” So began my mission to understand ropeless technology and help bring about its adaptation for commercial use in pot and trap fisheries around the world.
Ropeless fishing gear, or ASBRS (Acoustic Subsea Buoy Retrieval Systems) as I like to call them, includes any device that allows for storage of buoys, rope, or lift bags to be stored at depth where they present little or no threat of interaction with whales. These items are stored alongside the first trap in a fleet or trawl of traps and triggered acoustically—like remotely opening a car door—only when a fisher is nearby and ready to haul their fishing gear. This greatly reduces the time that the line and/or buoy are in the water column and presenting a threat to whales or other marine animals.
As a scientist working with engineers, how do you approach developing ropeless gear?
Just like any innovation or invention, there’s a period of testing, customization, and adjustment that must be done. This topic always brings to my mind the invention of the cellular phone and the super tiny and incredibly powerful ones that we have now compared to the bulky suitcase models we had a few decades ago. It’s true that we can’t see the “lines” that attach our phones now, as with landlines, but that doesn’t limit their power or ability to give us the information we need.
This period of adjustment is particularly important for a ropeless device because the approach and technique of every fisher is individual. Also, conditions in different geographic locations present different challenges for every fishing community, so these gears need to be adaptable (which they are!). This also means fishers need to have an attitude of collaboration when they agree to try fishing with these new methods.
One of the things I like to talk to fishers about is “taking the gear out and breaking it.” To us, this means testing how durable it is and how we can best challenge its functionality to make further versions of the technology better and as unbreakable as possible. The ingenuity of fishers and their enthusiasm for trying something new is the most important part of designing something for their use. The creativity and inspiration that I get to experience from them, firsthand, is pretty hard to forget.
Many of the fishers I’ve worked with have been excited and motivated to try something new that will help them reduce their amount of gear loss. I’ve also worked with people who have been directly affected by entanglements; either finding deceased animals in their gear or in the gear of others. It’s been clear to me that, while rare, these occurrences have a meaningful impact on them as humans. I find many of those fishers are even more motivated than their peers to try to help solve this problem and care less about their own gear loss than the life of the animal.
What has been your experience working with ropeless engineers and manufacturers?
For over a year I have collaborated with a large group of ropeless gear manufacturers and engineers to help streamline the testing process as well as the data we collect during it. Every single one of them set aside their own personal and commercial objectives to work together for the benefit of these animals. Something else that I find really inspiring is their willingness to work together to show the interoperability of their systems. They meet regularly with each other, both virtually and in person, to investigate opportunities for collaboration to help prove ropeless fishing as a concept worldwide, and have also shared valuable private internal data with me to help answer many of the questions both fisheries managers and fishers have about their gear.
What are some of the perceived barriers to the success of ropeless gear?
One of the greatest stated concerns for all is the perceived economic cost of ropeless fishing gear. This could be addressed in its own article, but I truly feel that at the heart of this reluctance to adapt is the fear fisher’s experience over a potential loss of control of their local community resource.
Fishing communities all over the world are able to self-police and regulate outsiders and those who do not adhere to local “gentlemen’s agreements” or customs. The loss of the simplest method of self-policing, a colored buoy or buoys at the sea surface, seemingly removes a fisher’s ability to ensure the future of their own catch. To me, this is completely understandable, but absolutely addressable with the use of virtual gear marking through software integration.
Other issues such as mobile gear interaction and overlayment (i.e., setting a trawl over another person’s gear) can be resolved by use of virtual gear marking and vessel tracking technologies, as well as certain areas being deemed “for use by pot fishers only,” which is currently visually designated by the buoys that sit on the sea surface. Ropeless gear will also make it easier to locate pots and traps that have been dragged along the seabed by ocean currents or other types of fishing gear like trawls. This will reduce the amount of lost fishing gear, which represents an economic burden to fishermen, as well as the amount of marine debris overall.
At the end of the day, all of those less-than-desirable mobile and fixed-gear interactions will likely never be wholly resolved, nor those that are caused by local territorial conflicts; not with visual buoys, regulations, nor with software. But the use of ropeless gear could absolutely reduce risk to other mariners posed by buoys that float at the surface, the overall amount of marine debris, as well as the amount of ghost fishing by lost pots or traps.
What’s next on the horizon for ropeless gear?
Ropeless gear testing is currently underway in extreme environments such as the North Sea, Cape Cod, and Canada to test the upper limits of functionality of these gears. We are taking it out and “trying to break it” as much as possible to build these gears up to be as strong and reliable as necessary in any fishery in the world. This is something that is absolutely vital if we are to advance these solutions for future widespread adoption.
Additionally, six manufacturers have been working together to demonstrate how ropeless gear can be used to fish within an area that currently is closed to fishing due to potential risks to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The manufacturer’s collaborative approach to meet this goal, which required the setting aside of competitive interests, really shows their commitment not just to saving whales, but also to ensuring the financial viability of fishers and their communities.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kim Sawicki is an American scientist currently living and working in Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship. Her work is in collaboration with the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and the Marine Institute (Republic of Ireland). Her nine-month independent research project requires her to travel along the coasts of both countries to work in close contact with entanglement experts, pathologists, engineers, policy makers, and fishing communities. Her past experience working as a public health professional in emergency & disaster medicine cultivated in her a passion for epidemiology and Pathobiology. After earning dual degrees in Pathobiology & Veterinary Science and Allied Health Sciences, she made the decision to apply her knowledge and energy to the study of cetacean epidemiology. Her current work focuses on trauma-induced mortalities, namely those involving entanglement in fishing gear. She recently co-founded “Sustainable Seas”, a group focused on empowering individuals, fishing communities, and conservationists to engage in productive and non-judgmental dialogue to help reduce cetacean mortalities. She is dedicated to working with innovative technology, fishers, and engineers to save marine mammals from unnecessary anthropogenic deaths, and to preserve coastal fishing communities as they are.