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The Future of Lobstering May Mean Fishing by Computer

Sam Houghton

The endangered North Atlantic right whale is facing extinction, with fewer than 450 left. The most significant cause of mortality for the whales is entanglement in fishing gear, including lobster trap lines. A lawsuit forcing the government to protect the whales may bring about a change in the way lobster fishermen have worked for more than a hundred years.

Lobster fishing used to be pretty straightforward. But there may be big changes ahead for fishermen in New England.

“First thing you have to remember is, you’re taking the lobster industry and flipping it around on its head and shaking it,” Mike Lane said, sitting on his lobster boat in Cohassett Lane. Lane is a life-long fisherman. His dad fished for lobster before him. He’s concerned about the proposals. “How are you going to teach 60-year old men that don’t use computers to use a computer?”

Credit Sam Houghton
Mike Lane on his boat. Lane has fished Massachusetts waters for decades and has attended a number of hearings and presentations about ropeless fishing.

Pretty soon, Lobstermen may be asked to find their traps using computers, instead of buoys. New fishing technology is being developed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale—it’s called ropeless fishing. 

Lobstermen would be able to work their traps without fishing line.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this technology will work well for the industry,” says Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Baumgartner is part of a team working on the latest evolution in ropeless fishing.

“It is going to be a challenge to get the industry on board, because it’s a huge change. But for the survival of right whales and the survival of the industry, we have to continue to develop ropeless technology.”

Out on the water, lobstermen know not to lay their traps on top of other fishermen’s gear because of floating buoys. But ropeless fishing does away with the buoy and the line.

“If you take that buoy away, you have to find some way to tell the fisherman where their gear is,” Baumgartner says. “It’s like putting a homing beacon on every trawl out there. It’s as if the fisherman is looking out and can see a buoy, but instead of seeing a buoy, he’s looking at his navigation system and can see a dot.”

The new technology would send a signal to the computer on a fishermen’s boat, taking away the need for the long fishing lines. Without the lines, the whales would have safe passage.

But there are complications.

“The initial knee jerk reaction is that there is no way it’s going to work,” said John Haviland, president of the South Shore Lobster Fishermen’s Association. “And I can understand fishermen saying that, because they haven’t seen any prototype tested.”

The Association represents about a hundred Massachusetts lobstermen who have already had to accommodate strict regulations to protect the whale, including a yearly three-month closure in Cape Cod Bay and Massachusetts Bay.

“I’ve been lobstering for 42 years, and all of that time been it has been with vertical lines and buoys,” Haviland says. “Now, there’s a number of testings that need to be done. Somebody’s going to have to come forward with a considerable amount of money, and then ask for a considerable amount of research, to actually move this forward.”

Haviland says that instead of using only the ropeless fishing technology, a combination of older, current and new technology could be used. Switching over completely to ropeless is too much, too soon.

Credit Sam Houghton
Rob Martin, a Massachusetts lobsterman, points to the closed off area in Cape Cod and Massachusetts bays. an approximately 3,000 square-mile area. The closure is in effect from the beginning of February until the end of April, although typically extends into May as whales linger in the area.

“It would like trying to throw a touchdown pass every time,” he said. “It may be prudent to get a first down to minimize the entanglements, and then from there we could work towards a total solution.”

And the technology would not be cheap. It’s hard to know the price yet, but the gear could cost several thousand dollars per fishermen.

“I don’t know how much more the government can throw at the fishing industry and expect us to stay in business,” said Lane, the fisherman out of Cohasset.

For the last three months, Lane hasn’t been able to fish his preferred spots because of closures to protect right whales in Cape Cod Bay. When he can, he’s fishing more dangerous areas. And he’s frustrated.

“There’s nothing like sitting on the sidelines looking at this boat, going ‘Can’t wait to use it,’” Lane said. “This stuff isn’t cheap.  I got $100,000 dollars worth of lobster gear.”

Lane knows that fishing lines can lead to whale deaths. He knows a collaborative effort between scientists and fishermen could help the whale and could even allow him to fish in closed-off areas.

But while he sits and waits at the Cohassett docks, his fishing grounds closed, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen soon enough.