More ropeless fishing happening on Eastern seaboard as industry leaders meet

The chair of a group that brings together officials from Canada and the U.S. to help make ropeless fishing a reality says there’s been a surge in testing new technology over the last year, which could help the rapidly declining North Atlantic right whale population.

Sean Brillant, who works for the Canadian Wildlife Federation and is chair of the Ropeless Consortium, said they are approaching roughly 1,000 trials across the Eastern Seaboard, the bulk of which has been done in the last 12 months.

“Two years ago, we were just getting laughed in our faces at the idea of doing this,” Brillant said.

The methods being tested include techniques that allow a line to be stored with a trap at the ocean bottom, and then released to the surface only when a fisherman is ready to haul in their catch. The aim is to cut the risk that whales will be caught in long lengths of rope floating in the water.

The third annual Ropeless Consortium meeting was held this week. Researchers, members of the fishing industry and government officials first came together in 2018 to help develop ropeless technology that is economically viable for fishermen and reduces entanglements of large whales.

But Brillant said ropeless technology is not the “holy grail” for saving the right whales, nor is it intended to replace all other traps. Instead, the group hopes ropeless technology will help fishermen deal with continued area closures due to the right whales.

“It’s not the only tool, it’s not the thing we’re moving toward that’s going to solve all of these problems,” he said.

Sean Brillant is with the Canadian Wildlife Foundation and chairs the Ropeless Consortium. 

The meeting, which was attended online by roughly 300 people, came the day before the two-day North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which began on Tuesday.

While there have been no reported right whale deaths or entanglements in Canadian waters so far in 2020, 29 whales have died in Canada’s oceans since 2017.

Most of these deaths are due to fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. In response, the Canadian government implemented measures such as fishing zone closures and ship speed restrictions.

Implementing weaker rope will also be a reality in Canadian waters by the end of 2021.

In a statement, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said weak ropes or weak breaking points will become mandatory by the end of 2021. Sometime after that, there will also be a maximum fishing rope diameter allowed, new sinking rope between traps and reductions in vertical and floating rope.

Mark Baumgartner, a biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass., and vice chair of the Ropeless Consortium, said weaker rope is not necessarily going to work for the offshore and crab fisheries.

“They have heavy gear that they need to bring to the surface …1,700-pound breaking-strength rope is almost surely not going to work for them,” he said.

Baumgartner said as fisheries closures become more “in vogue,” they want to be prepared with solutions.

“There’s an urgency to develop this, but it has to be developed right, or it can be damaging to the fishery, I think. If we impose upon them an extraordinarily expensive solution, it’s equivalent to closing them down,” he said.

Last year, fishermen in Caraquet, N.B., tested traps that have a bag attached to them. The bag holds the rope needed to pull the trap up. They used an acoustic release device to trigger the rope when they were ready to pull the trap from the ocean floor. (Marco Flagg/Submitted)

Some crab fishermen in Canadian waters have already begun trying ropeless fishing methods. In 2019, the federal government gave roughly $2 million over three years to the snow crab industry in northern New Brunswick to try and find ways to reduce right whale entanglements.

Baumgartner said they can’t speculate right now about the cost of ropeless technology because it’s still in the prototype phase.

“We all recognize the idea that if we can’t get the cost down, this is just a no-go. We’re not looking to put fishermen out of business,” he said.

Different ropeless systems

Brillant said the Canadian Wildlife Federation is testing four ropeless systems.

He said two main technologies are being studied. The first is where the buoy line and buoy are stored at the bottom of the seafloor. Fishermen have a release mechanism that brings it to the surface.

The other is a kind of deflated bag that sits with the trap or an anchor on the bottom. When it is called to the surface, it inflates and floats up.

But a question many fishermen have also revolves around locating ropeless gear, a problem that has yet to be solved.

One possible solution is surface GPS marking, but that will only show where the gear was dropped, not its current location — so if it ever moves, it will be hard to find again.

There are also acoustic transponders that can tell fishermen how far away they are from a piece of gear and possibly what direction that gear is in.

Finally, there’s another system that Baumgartner is involved in developing, where the gear localizes itself, much like a cellphone. Cellphones are localized or tracked by the signals they send to cell towers or by using GPS. 

Fishing gear entanglements is one of the leading causes of death for right whales, which are now classified as an endangered species. (Shane Fowler)

While Brillant said there are still challenges of incorporating ropeless gear into all fisheries, he believes they are well on there way to getting there.

“I think the snowball is starting to roll down the hill. If one fishery can get it figured out, then perhaps it’s going to encourage others as well,” he said.

And while the right whales are the species getting the most attention these days, Brillant points out that eliminating lines in the water column will have an impact on other species.

“If we lose right whales, well there’s another species right behind them that will then find itself at the edge of the cliff,” he said.

“This problem is not going to go away just because right whales go away.”

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