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.