How will ropeless gear help end whale entanglements?

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. 

Ropeless (ASBRS) (Top: Fiobuoy, DesertStar ARC-1, Ashored-Mobi.
Bottom: LobsterLift, SMELTS LobsterRaft, EdgeTech 5112) Credit: Annika Toth

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.

Scottish creeler with Kim Sawicki rigging Desert Star Systems ropeless fishing system, 2019.

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. 

They’re always very happy to receive feedback from the fishers I’ve worked with to better their designs or to make them more adaptable to other fisheries. In the U.S., they also recently collaborated on a response to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team’s examination of the feasibility of ropeless gear to provide direct answers to concerns about their products raised by federal and state agencies, fisheries managers, fishers, environmental groups, and other vital stakeholders.

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?

Credit: Kim Sawicki

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.


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.


Project Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

© Natural Resources Defense Council 2019 Privacy Policy State Disclosures

Answers to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team Ropeless Subgroup Feasibility Matrix

Six ropeless fishing systems: Fiomarine’s Fiobuoy®, Desert Star Systems ARC-1 or SubSea Sonics AR50, Ashored’s MOBI,
LobsterLift, Ropeless System’s Riser or SMELTS Lobster Raft, and EdgeTech’s 5112 ©Sawicki & Toth, 2021

Answers to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team

Ropeless Subgroup Feasibility Matrix

Author: Kim Sawicki Correspondence to: +44 7840 489378

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.

My Ask: My request to the ALWTRT would be to ensure that the continued development and support of ropeless technologies be included in the rule-making process.

Kim Sawicki-September 2019/2021

We have a chance to fix things.

No. 3329 Credit: Peter Flood

“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.

What do we know about these animals that died?

Punctuation Credit: DFO

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.

Comet Credit: Dr. Moira Brown

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.

Wolverine Credit: Sheila McKenney/Associated Scientists of Woods Hole/Marineland Right Whale Project
Wolverine Credit: Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC
Wolverine’s Necropsy Credit: Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC

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.

Clipper and Calf 2016 Credit-Marineland RW Project

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 Credit: Center for Coastal Studies

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 Credit: Jolinne Surette

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.

We still have a chance to fix things. Right Whale Credit: Brian Skerry
sustainable seas 2019

Ropeless Consortium Informal Industry Working Group Ropeless Gear Testing Matrix 2019

Below please find a gear testing matrix that is offered open source to anyone wishing to perform ropeless gear testing. It is the result of the collaborative efforts of all of the gear designers and manufacturers listed on this blog. Through their willingness to work together to solve the problem of entanglements, they are proving that their hearts, as well as their technology are in the Right place. I would personally like to thank them for their participation in this seemingly small but important contribution.

-Kim Sawicki March 2019

Confirmed North Atlantic Right Whale Entanglement Deaths as of 2019

Above data appears in map form as published by
NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team.

Statistical data available to date indicates that these numbers reflect possibly less than 6% of all North Atlantic Right Whales killed as a result (either direct or indirect) of entanglement in man-made gear. This is a staggering number considering the current known population of the North Atlantic Right Whale numbers a mere 418 individuals.

View all pertinent data on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team’s April Meeting on their Website Here

-Kim Sawicki March 2019

Why disentanglement teams are a crutch and not an adequate defense against entanglements.

Humpback whale entangled in fishing gear. © 2019 Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventures

“Disentanglement is a crutch that’s been leant on for too long, it should not be viewed as a long-term solution to the entanglement crisis”
– large whale disentanglement team member, Massachusetts.
Quote from Ellie MacLennan’s 2017 paper “Disentangling a Whale of a Problem”

From the 2017 National Report on Large Whale Entanglements:

“Seventy-six confirmed cases of large whale entanglements were documented along the coasts of the United States in 2017. Seventy of these entanglement cases involved live animals and six involved dead animals. All were independently confirmed by the Large Whale Entanglement Response Network.”

The five most frequently entangled large whale species in 2017 included humpback whale, gray whale, minke whale, blue whale, and North Atlantic right whale. Large whale entanglements were reported and confirmed in the waters of 13 states, along all U.S. coasts except within the Gulf of Mexico.

Approximately 70 percent of confirmed cases in 2017 were entangled in fishing gear (line and buoys, traps, monofilament line, and nets)”

2017 National Report on Large Whale Entanglements, NOAA.

Sadly, this is an all-too-common occurrence these days.

This whale was unable to be completely disentangled, despite the best efforts of the whale watching company (who reported it and stood by the animal) and NOAA’s authorized and highly-trained team. Even when people do everything right, many of these entangled animals can not be freed.

No fisher ever wants or intends to be the cause of these entanglements as they are costly to the fisher as well as the environment. Fishers are not the cause of these entanglements, outdated technology is. We owe it to them to work toward a solution that keeps this in mind.

Deceased Atlantic Humpback, cause of death unknown. ©2019 Betty Burks

-Kim Sawicki March 2019

An amazing and enlightening video on the life of Scottish fishers…

Why is this issue of sustainably-caught seafood such a controversial one? Take an hour to watch the fascinating BBC video above to find out! Featuring Dougie Vipond, this documentary is not only riveting, but speaks volumes about how far we have still to go to make sure that we are good stewards of the seas.

Kim Sawicki February 2019

Ocean Soul-Brian Skerry

© 2017 Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry is one of my favorite underwater photographers. I find his approach when capturing images of nature to be passionate, reverent, and humble. I am always delighted to introduce people to his work because his actions once out of the water center around conserving what he sees when beneath the waves. I love seeing the world through his camera lens, and I am sure you will, too. Enjoy!

-Kim Sawicki February 2019

Brian discusses the work behind his 2011 book, Ocean Soul, which can be purchased below.
© Brian Skerry and National Geographic

Brian Skerry is a photojournalist specializing in marine wildlife and underwater environments. Since 1998 he has been a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine. In 2014 he was named a National Geographic Photography Fellow. In 2015 he was named a Nikon Ambassador and in 2017 he was named the Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year.

2010 TED talk featuring Skerry discussing his ocean concerns.

Unique within the field of underwater photography is Brian’s ability to pursue subjects of great diversity. He typically spends eight months each year in the field and frequently finds himself in environments of extreme contrast from tropical coral reefs to diving beneath polar ice. While on assignment he has lived on the bottom of the sea, spent months aboard fishing boats and traveled in everything from snowmobiles to canoes to the Goodyear Blimp to get the picture. He has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater over the last thirty years.

His latest book, SHARK, was released in June 2017. You can order an autographed copy here:

In February 2017, National Geographic Magazine’s cover story focused on the protection and preservation of several of our country’s precious underwater ecosystems. Not only did Brian get to snorkel with the president, but he became the first photographer to ever catch an image of an “underwater Commander-in-chief”!

Brian can be followed on Instagram (@BrianSkerry), Twitter (Brian_Skerry) and on Facebook. His website is

You can purchase Ocean Soul by clicking the button below, or check out any of his other stunning work.

Disclaimer: All materials shared on this page are the artistic and intellectual property of Brian Skerry and National Geographic. If you link or share, please make certain to cite and credit both appropriately, as I have tried to do here. They work hard to support saving vital ecosystems, so ensuring they are credited both financially and artistically is important. Thanks!

Ropeless and Lineless Fishing Gear

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.

-Kim Sawicki February 2019

How does entanglement happen, exactly?

This illustration shows only the set up of a trawl of trap-style fishing gear, when in truth, marine mammals are entangled in a whole host of different things we place in the oceans. ©Graphic Services, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The majority of baleen whales feed by either opening their mouths after targeting a specific prey and taking in a large amount of fish plus sea water, then forcing the excess water out through their baleen, or by actively swimming with their mouths open while straining the water. The latter is the method of feeding used by the North Atlantic Right Whale.

Credit Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, BelleQuant, New England Aquarium and Duke University- Pratt School of Engineering

While entanglement is not limited to this species, they do tend to pick up a great deal of vertical line from the water column. With eyes placed on the sides of their heads, these whales have limited vision directly in front of them, similar to horses. Lastly, North Atlantic Right Whales have an unusual downward angled curve to the back of their lips, creating the perfect anchor space for any rope they may accidentally sweep up in their search for food.

Gray whale trapped in seine net. ©

Other causes of entanglement:

Seine nets, monofilament nets and lines, and mooring lines are just a few of the underwater threats faced by dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles, sharks, and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions) as well as a whole host of whales, both large and small.

-Kim Sawicki December 2018