Sustainable Seas Technology Update: A Journey from 2022 to 2023

The past two years have been transformative but incredibly busy for Sustainable Seas Technology. Here’s a look back at our key milestones and the progress we’ve made in advancing ropeless fishing gear.

1. Advancements in Ropeless Fishing Gear

Ropeless fishing gear has been at the forefront of our efforts. Traditional fishing methods, particularly those involving ropes and buoys, have long posed threats to marine life, especially to large mammals like whales. Entanglements can lead to injuries or even fatalities, which is why the development and promotion of ropeless fishing gear has been crucial.

In 2022 and 2023, we made significant strides in refining the technology behind ropeless systems. By collaborating with engineers, marine biologists, and fishermen, we’ve been able to help optimize gear that’s not only efficient but cost effective. Here are a few of the projects we have been working on…

California- Dungeness Crab

California- Brown Box Crab and King Crab

North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida-Black Sea Bass

Canada- American Lobster

2. Collaborative Projects and Workshops

Recognizing the importance of collaboration, we’ve engaged with various stakeholders over the past two years. From hosting workshops with local fishing communities to partnering with marine conservation organizations, our goal has been to foster a collective understanding toward the adoption of subsea buoy retrieval fishing practices.

These workshops have been instrumental in bridging the gap between technology and its practical application. We have explored issues such as virtual gear marking strategies, societal pressure from adjacent fisheries, economic challenges, marketing, and adoption barriers. By listening to the concerns and insights of fishermen, we’ve been able to help tailor solutions to meet the unique challenges they face.

Successful results from our first EFP in the South Atlantic black sea bass pot fishery led to a second EFP to allow on-demand gear testing within closure areas, with participation from our fishermen working with several varieties of the  gear in waters from Sneads Ferry, N.C., south to Ormond Beach, Fla. The SAFMC’s recent decision could revolutionize the way fishing is done in these regions. By allowing ropeless or on-demand fishing gear, fishermen can continue their operations during seasonal closures without needing exemptions. This ensures that while the fishing industry thrives, the marine ecosystem, especially the North Atlantic right whales, remains protected. Traditional gear can still be used, but only outside of these closures.

3. Pilot Programs and Field Testing

2023 was a landmark year for field testing. We launched several pilot programs across different fishing communities to test the efficacy and adaptability of our ropeless gear. We have continued our previous work on the East Coast of the United States, spending most of the fall and winter with our black sea bass fishers, stress testing the gear. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with many fishermen noting the ease of use and the tangible benefits to marine life.

4. Raising Awareness and Advocacy

Beyond the technological advancements, a significant part of our mission has been to raise awareness about the importance of on-demand fishing in fisheries which co-occur with whale migrations and populations. Through various campaigns, seminars, interviews, documentary segments, meetings, and public engagements, we’ve highlighted the positive aspects of pot fishing gear and the potential benefits of adopting ropeless gear for those fisheries who are welcoming to it or may be in need of it due to regional regulations. We have assisted in authoring numerous permit applications with fishers and manufacturers and have supported the work of other groups who are seeking to increase awareness with other stakeholders.

5. Looking Ahead

As we move forward, our focus remains on continuous innovation, collaboration, and expansion of available gears. We’re excited to grow our gear cache to make more ropeless fishing systems available to communities both in the US and abroad. Additionally, we aim to expand our available mobile gear workshops to make our work with bicoastal fishing communities easier and more affordable.

In conclusion, the journey from 2022 to 2023 has been both challenging and rewarding. We remain committed to our mission of ensuring that our seas remain vibrant and thriving for generations to come. With the support of our partners, stakeholders, and the broader community, we’re confident that the future of pot fishing will include ropeless gears that will allow fishing to safely co-occur with nature.

-KS, October 2023.

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

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