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The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Is ropeless fishing gear a whale-safe solution for American Lobster?

Ropeless, also called “on-demand” fishing gear aims to reduce vertical lines in the water column for trap fisheries like lobster. These innovations have become a key component of ongoing fishery management efforts to minimize interactions with whales. We have reported on those interactions before, but we have not covered the gear innovations that may provide hope for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales while allowing fixed-gear fishermen and women to stay on the water. In this post, we will review the problems that ropeless fishing gear may solve, summarize the latest technology, and project what it might mean for the future of fixed gear fisheries.

Endangered North Atlantic right whales are killed and injured from rope entanglement

The race to produce ropeless fishing gear has been sparked by the dire circumstances of North Atlantic right whales. With only about 340 left (approximately 80 are spawning females), just one unusual mortality event per year risks the species’ future—and fishing gear has been implicated in at least nine and up to 27 deaths since 2017 (ship strikes have been responsible for at least 11 deaths).

Traditional lobster gear uses metal cages called traps or pots. They are deployed into the water with a buoy attached to a rope, which hangs vertically in the water column until the trap is collected. Whales can entangle themselves if they swim through areas with ropes in the water. The entanglement and extra weight eventually wear them out, and they drown. Maine reported nearly 3 million trap tags in 2018, and Canada estimates 3,000 trap licenses are active each year with each license holder able to deploy up to about 300 traps. While not every single trap is attached to a vertical line, that still puts an incredible amount of hazardous ropes into the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Those lines can be a deadly hazard for marine mammals, especially the North Atlantic right whale.

Illustration of a North Atlantic right whale entangled in ropes from lobster traps.
Pew Charitable Trusts

NOAA estimates that over 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. But Maine has not reported a single right whale entanglement in its lobster fishery since 2004, and recent events suggest right whales are at greater risk farther north in Canada. Conservationists and lobstermen and women have disagreed on the best available right whale science for years.

SFUW first reported on this conflict in 2020 and warned of complicated market reactions if sustainability ratings and certifications changed for American lobster fisheries in the U.S. or Canada based on right whale threats. Sure enough, in September 2022, Seafood Watch downgraded all American lobster fisheries in both countries to red, “Avoid.” In December 2022, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) suspended the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s certification because a federal judge ruled that lobster fisheries violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Lobster fishers feared this ruling would trigger a fishery shutdown, but the U.S. Congress included a special provision in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 to buy some time for the Maine lobster industry to develop a solution. The industry was granted a six-year pause on additional rules and regulations for the fishery. According to the bill, all U.S. lobster fisheries must “promote the innovation and adoption of gear technologies” to reduce interactions with right whales.

Testing ropeless gear and on-demand fishing technology

This policy has created an opportunity for fishing gear innovation to reduce ropes in the water to reduce whale entanglements and deaths. Ropeless fishing gear (also called on-demand) removes vertical fishing lines from the water column until harvest. Instead of identifying buoys on the surface, fishermen track the location of deployed underwater traps via GPS, then signal a deployment trigger to retrieve the gear. Deployment options could include a pop-up buoy or an inflatable lift bag, depending on the gear company in question.

Illustration of ropeless or on-demand lobster traps being signaled by a boat.
Wall Street Journal

EdgeTech and SMELTS are two players in the ropeless fishing gear technology space that have tested remote-deployed lobster traps with lobster fishers in Massachusetts. Their gear has been available through NOAA’s On-Demand Gear Library since 2019. This library, funded by federal and philanthropic resources, offers free testing opportunities for interested lobster fishers. The library helps normalize this type of fishing and produces valuable feedback and data for gear companies. As of last December, about thirty lobster boats had been lent ropeless gear for testing.

This free resource is the only realistic way to introduce ropeless fishing gear to most fishers because the technology is incredibly expensive compared to traditional lobster gear. EdgeTech gear costs include $4,600 for the acoustic release unit plus $4,000 for shipboard electronics like a portable acoustic transducer. A recent study estimated total gear conversion costs to be closer to $70,000 per boat. Most New England lobster fishers can be licensed for hundreds of traditional lobster traps, making a measurable switch to ropeless gear daunting, even if the acoustic deployment was affixed to one trap at the end of a multi-trap arrangement underwater.

What happens when the app or the deployment device on the on-demand trap malfunctions?

Even if the retention rate was 95%, the fear of losing just one $4,000 trap might deter fishers from relying on this technology to support their catch all season.

Another obstacle is communicating the location of ropeless gear to other vessels in the area. With no surface buoy, the traps could pose a hazard to other ocean users, i.e., some parts of New England allow for bottom trawling, bottom gillnets, and traditional rope traps. These other vessels could download the same GPS technology on-demand fishers use, but it would require a widespread education initiative to convince all other fishing boats in New England to download a new app and learn how to use it to avoid buoy-less traps.

For some of these concerns, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has created the Ropeless Consortium, an online resource for moving “towards whales without rope entanglements.” Stakeholders can find relevant policy updates, read about recent ropeless gear testing studies, and register for meetings and events to weigh in on development.  However, it is still hard to find direct testimony from fishers testing this gear in a way that inspires a future of widespread ropeless gear adoption.

Ropeless gear works - but maybe not economically

Two recent reports have given some good and bad news to ropeless gear supporters.

The first report came from the Northeast Fishery Science Center and provided one of the first widespread measurements of ropeless gear retention. Ten lobster fishers set ropeless gear with EdgeTech technology in the Massachusetts Restricted Area and nearby federal waters. 527 traps were set, and 89.5% were retrieved on the first attempt without malfunction. Some of the 11.5% traps that did not return on the first attempt were recovered on subsequent attempts, so the study estimated the actual percentage of lost gear to be equal to or lower than the 5-15% average lost gear rate per season associated with traditional buoy lobster gear.

Each trap had an active acoustic modem sending alerts to all GPS devices in range, which successfully signaled to other vessels and mitigated any conflicts during the study. No gear conflicts were reported with traditional lobster harvesters, scallop dredgers, or other overlapping fleets.

But a second, more recent report from the State of Massachusetts found the expected costs of switching to ropeless fishing gear to be unviable. Currently, Massachusetts lobster harvest profits roughly 15 million per year after expenses. Switching to ropeless gear would eliminate any profit—the study estimated the state would lose 24 million in revenue per year, “and that’s with a 15-year loan to buy the on-demand gear with favorable interest rates.”

If all lobstermen were given ropeless gear for free, profits would still drop to 2 million per year due to the extra time required to harvest.

The disadvantage of using ropeless lobster gear would also be felt harder by smaller, more independent operators. Smaller boats usually fish with fewer traps per line, meaning a higher proportion of traps would directly use acoustic buoy deployments. According to the study, this would almost double the time it takes to retrieve all lobster gear for smaller boat operators.

What could a compromise look like?

Ropeless fishing gear is simply too expensive for widespread adoption in American lobster fisheries in the near future. Massachusetts has led the way in new gear testing, but only a fraction of the state’s lobster harvesters have handled the gear on the water. These fishers have been more willing than their counterparts in Maine to test gear because their Massachusetts fixed gear fisheries have been canceled or severely limited to avoid right whale interactions.  

Maine has not been forced to close significant areas of its fishing territory, giving lobster fishers fewer reasons to consider testing ropeless gear. Lobster fishing is steeped in Maine culture and identity and many Mainers vehemently oppose any suggestion that their lobster fishery is unsustainable, even for critically endangered right whales. The Maine lobster industry sued the Monterey Bay Aquarium after the Seafood Watch program downgraded lobster to “Avoid.” When Whole Foods Market decided to pause all Homarus americanus sourcing for right whale concerns, Maine lawmakers tried to withhold state tax breaks for Whole Foods grocery stores.

For now, ropeless fishing technology might find friendlier testing waters away from New England. Similar lawsuits for right whale conservation have been pending in California, Oregon, and Washington regarding endangered Pacific humpback whales that migrate through Dungeness crab and sablefish fisheries with similar entanglement threats. A recent settlement will require these west coast states to test ropeless fishing gear. Companies like EdgeTech and SMELTS might meet fewer detractors in these fisheries and could test their technologies more widely before bringing a refined, more cost-effective product back to skeptical New England lobster fishers.

Innovations in ropeless fishing gear will hopefully coincide with innovations in whale science. Seafood Watch has given a blanket red-rating to all fixed-gear fisheries in FAO fishing area 21, even though many have never reported entanglements with right whales. With so few right whales left, that precautionary approach makes sense, but with better whale tracking data and technology and a clearer understanding of seasonal right whale habitats, perhaps in-shore lobster fisheries could be exonerated from the ratings downgrades and allowed to use traditional fishing gear more often. Offshore lobster fishers, who usually have larger boats and could handle ropeless fishing gear more easily, could be asked to cease lobster fishing when right whales are nearby, unless they deploy ropeless fishing gear. Maine and Canada should also strongly consider reducing the individual trap limit. That wouldn’t be popular either, but at least it would be relatively cost-effective.

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