‘Ropeless’ Fishing Gear Aims to Protect Whales, But Adds Complications, Costs
April 13, 2023
A handful of Rhode Island lobster fishermen are working this season with federal regulators to use and study some complex and early stage equipment that is intended, eventually, to greatly reduce entanglements and deaths of whales.
The experimental equipment for this so-called “ropeless” fishing would eliminate the vertical ropes — or “lines” — running down the water column from buoys on the surface to lines connecting a series of traps on the seafloor. The existing function of buoys and vertical lines — to find and retrieve traps — would be replaced under a new system by computerized acoustic signals from boats to the seafloor and geopositioning via cell signals or satellites.
Using federal experimental fishing permits, three Port Judith-based lobstermen are struggling to use the new gear, borrowed from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a branch of NOAA Fisheries.
On a recent sunny April morning, Richard Lodge and his sea dogs Rudder and Dory were preparing to embark from his dock at Point Judith on his boat Select for a day of lobster fishing using the experimental gear. The gear is informally called “on demand” because the fisherman uses an acoustic signal, like a dog whistle, to release floats on the seafloor and to raise one end of the trawl line to the surface.
His experimental fishing permit allows Lodge to use and test the gear in a portion of the ocean called the South Island restricted area, to the south and east of the Rhode Island coast. The restricted area was designated two years ago, and lobster fishing — using buoys and vertical lines — is banned there from February through April, when the endangered North Atlantic right whale is moving through the area.
Lodge uses a mild tone in talking about using the gear, which is a little surprising, considering the years of previous regulations on the fishery and the hassles of managing the computer-driven gear.
“Ropeless technology is excessive; I honestly don’t think it is necessary,” Lodge said. “This is a solution to a problem that isn’t there.” He and other Point Judith-based lobstermen said that in decades of time at sea, they don’t know of one instance in which whales were entangled in their lines.
“I’ve fished here for 40 years and we haven’t had a problem with whales,” said Galilee-based fisherman Eric Marcus, who also has an experimental fishing permit to use and test the ropeless gear in the restricted zone. “Where we are isn’t a breeding ground for whales.”
Daniel McKiernan, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said there are 6,000 commercial lobstermen and 350 right whales, “so naturally the vast majority of lobstermen are not entangling whales.”
Whales under stress
With only about 350 individual animals alive, the North Atlantic right whale is endangered, causing increasing consternation by environmentalists, animal protection groups, and federal officials charged with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. (Also, the locally active fin whale is endangered, and the humpback whale is threatened or endangered, depending on category.)
Marine scientists are studying the right whale population intensively.
Robert Kenney, a marine scientist with the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, said assessments by the Atlantic Scientific Review Group estimate that 70% of whale deaths and serious injuries are caused by entanglement in fishing gear and 30% are caused by ship strikes. Even so, less than a third of dead whales are ever found and most deaths are never analyzed.
Scientists say the right whale and other whales are in trouble because of the warming of ocean waters. Scientists suspect that as whales move northward to colder waters, which they prefer, they are chasing their prey into waters more heavily used by boats. Adult females are using more time and energy finding food, so their pregnancies are spaced much farther apart than the formerly typical three years. The number of newborn whale calves has decreased steadily, with only 57 calves born since 2017, and none in 2018.
Starting in 2017, federal officials declared an unusual mortality event (UME) for the right whale, with an annual average of five deaths and serious injuries per year from 2009 to 2018. The right whale UME has not been explained, although it is being studied closely.
Also, opponents of offshore wind projects are claiming acoustic testing for wind turbine locations from New Jersey through New England is causing harm and disruption to whales. Marine scientists say there is no evidence for this idea, since acoustic levels are much lower than anything that could bother whales. In a February article in USA Today about the issue, the authors wrote, “these groups and politicians appear to be using whales as pawns.”
New regs to save whales
Rhode Island lobstermen are deeply exasperated by the newest regulations they face, announced in September 2021. They are the work of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which has been working under NOAA Fisheries since 1996. Its goal is to better enforce the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species acts.
The 2021 rules required a lot of actions by fishermen, including formalizing and requiring some whale-protection practices that they have been doing on their own initiative, they said, for many years. Besides creating the South Island exclusion zone, the rules required vertical buoy lines to include “weak rope” and “weak insertions,” known as “weak links,” both of which are designed to easily break when a large whale lumbers into the line.
The rules require lines to have colored-coded markings, designated by state — Rhode Island’s color is silver gray. The purpose is for scientists and regulators to determine, over time, where whales are getting entangled, and thus focus their prevention efforts. McKiernan, of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said the ongoing and upgraded efforts to identify the source of ropes found on whales, based on color coding, should help give fisheries managers a better idea of where whales are getting entangled.
The rules also set higher minimums of the number of traps on each bottom trawl, with the objective of reducing the number of vertical lines and buoys that mark each end of a trawl line.
The new minimums on the number of traps were not imposed for the Rhode Island fishery. The weak links and weak lines and color-coded marks are things Rhode Island lobstermen have been doing for years, several fishermen said, although the new rule makes these more formalized and mandatory.
The rules were accompanied by $200,000 in federal funds for each state to help fishermen meet the new requirements, said Scott Olszewski, deputy chief for the Division of Marine Fisheries of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He said the state used the money to buy and distribute approved weak lines to fishermen in time for the May 1, 2022 deadline.
Jay Swoboda, 69, fishes for lobster off Point Judith in his boat, the Karen Ann. He has been fishing in Rhode Island, he said, since he was 14. The fishery has been expected to follow one new regulation after another for decades, he said.
“We are beyond highly regulated,” Swoboda said. “It seems like every year or two there is another regulation on fishing. With global warming, the whale stuff is on the table now.”
He ticked off a handful of changes he has made over the years. First in line was a switch from lightweight plastic rope on the seafloor, which had a tendency to float off the floor and tangle, with heavier “sinking rope.” Then came the regulation to mark vertical lines with red paint — probably a precursor to the new color coding. Then fishermen had to install a “breakaway” between the upper part of the vertical rope and the buoy. This was intended at the time mainly to save their traps from being dragged away and lost if a tug or other boat moved across a buoy or vertical line and snagged the entire bottom trawl line.
Then, as of 2021, lobstermen had to redo their vertical lines, Swoboda said, to put in a weak link every 60 feet.
Loss of lobster
One reason Rhode Island lobstermen insist they are not a threat to whales sounds a bit like an earlier version of the story happening to whales now: in the past four decades, the lobsters in this area have been vanishing, followed by the lobster fleet.
Olszewski estimated that about 100 lobster fishermen are still active off Rhode Island shores. He said the state officially allows 290 boats to fish for lobster, but when the notice went out that DEM would be handing out free rope before May 1 of last year, only 75 lobstermen responded.
“In the 1980s and ’90s southern New England was the epicenter of lobster fishing” on the East Coast, Swoboda said. Then the lobster die-off got underway. He attributes the decline in lobsters to factors that include warming waters, natural predation, and an oil spill in the late 1990s that killed lobsters and set back the population recovery by years. (A lobster takes seven or eight years to grow to harvesting size.)
McKiernan, the Massachusetts fisheries official, agreed with Swoboda’s assessment. He said ocean warming has caused lobster, a cold-water creature, to move northward. They release their eggs in cold water, which means further offshore, which means the eggs may get swept northward by ocean currents. The amount of larvae and stock of young lobsters is being steadily reduced in southern New England.
“They are just failing more in the south,” McKiernan said. “At the beginning of their life history something is broken.”
Swoboda said as the fishery declined in the late 1990s to early 2000s, fisherman could not make a go of it and they sold their boats and got out of the industry. He said overfishing was not the problem, because the lobstermen retreated as the lobster stocks did.
How the new gear works
On a recent morning in Point Judith, Lodge demonstrated the operation of the on-demand technology made by EdgeTech, which is on loan from the NMFS.
The device for each trawl line — and some fishermen use several lines — costs about $4,000, he said. Lodge said he is grateful for NOAA and NMFS for the “gear library” they have created, allowing fishermen to borrow and test the experimental gear. The gear he is using on loan from NMFS could be valued at $40,000, Lodge said.
(A half-dozen or so other manufacturers are jumping into the field, designing and building on-demand fishing gear. One of them, Cormac Hondros-McCarthy, was on Lodge’s boat that day, tinkering with his invention, the Lobster Lift. The regulations, under continuous revision, have spurred several manufacturers and inventors to try to build a better mousetrap of their own.)
On the deck was a large crate that resembled a lobster trap, containing coiled rope and three hard flotation devices. The crate is lowered into the water and its rope connected to one end of the bottom trawl line.
When the lobsterman returns to unload his catch, he uses a tablet containing an app that is part of the system, to find the approximate location of the trawl line. At that spot, he tells the app to send an acoustic signal to the crate, which releases the flotation devices and brings the lid of the crate to the surface. When the lid is in the boat, he uses the attached rope to haul up the crate. The crate, in turn, is attached to the trawl line, allowing the fisherman to haul up all the traps, as usual. Before any trap hauling begins, he must repack the rope and flotation devices in the crate, to be ready for redeployment when the traps are emptied of catch and returned to the bottom.
The knottiest problem
The difficult fly in the ointment, which no one claims is even near to resolution, is how to mark the location of the trawl line, the job that traditionally is done by buoys. All fishermen, including other fisheries like scalloping, for instance, that use draggers and dredgers, must know where lobster trawls are located on the bottom. It is imperative to protect a trawl line from being dragged and destroyed by mobile fisheries, and also to prevent other lobstermen — called “fixed” fisheries — to lay their traps on top of an existing trawl line.
All fishermen need to know the location of trawl lines in real time; delaying the dissemination of the information is a serious problem.
The near-term method for telling all fishermen where fixed gear is located is through tracking apps that update locations of trawl lines via cell service. But that service extends to only about 5 miles from land-based cell towers, and lobster fishing can take place more than 50 miles from shore. That has led to the idea of updating geolocation data via satellite. And that would be expensive.
“All of this keeps getting more and more complicated,” said Lodge, noting that miscues and breakdowns are common for any electronic gear. He said that he, at 52, is a “kid” among the lobster fishermen at Point Judith, with many of them in their 60s and 70s. The new electronic gear may be hard for some of the older people to adapt to, and, Lodge added, for some “it’s a privacy issue. Some guys don’t want the government and everyone knowing where their traps are.”
Hondros-McCarthy said NOAA and the NNFS “are doing their best to create a path forward, but it’s not a clear picture yet. Everything is new.”
Lodge said, “It involves so many players in so many fields. Even if we all switched to this stuff, whales would still die.”
The Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, an industry-connected group of scientists, is working on the problem of geolocation of gear, with no breakthroughs yet. Foundation director David Bethoney said his group is testing the Trap Tracker, the app that EdgeTech created to work with its on-demand gear.
Bethoney said the group tried using cell service boosters, but those made little difference. Then it successfully persuaded EdgeTech to change the app so that users can see locations of the devices for a distance of 200 miles — rather than the original 20 miles — before they move out of cellular range.
Still, the basic problem remained the same: once out of cellular range, all location data on the app is frozen at its last status until the boat moves back into cell range. In the meantime, both fixed and mobile fisheries could be coming and going, setting traps and dragging dredges and nets anywhere, not knowing where lobster traps may be on the seafloor.
The entire undertaking — all of it based on meeting the goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act — got a reprieve last December when Congress, prodded hard by fishermen from Maine, passed a bill that includes a six-year pause on federal whale regulations, until the end of 2028. The bill also provided federal money for research into whale protection measures off Maine, Georges Bank, and southern New England, and money for ropeless gear technologies.