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'Pioneer' lobstermen want to use ropeless fishing gear during the state's seasonal closure

Rob Martin, who has been fishing off his boat for the last 29 years, and his partner haul up a 150-pound end trap while ropeless lobster fishing in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts.
Eve Zuckoff
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Rob Martin, who has been fishing off his boat for the last 29 years, and his partner haul up a 150-pound end trap while ropeless lobster fishing in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts.

A group of five commercial lobstermen who call themselves “The Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co-Existence” are seeking state permission to use “ropeless” fishing gear in state waters during a seasonal closure that was designed to protect critically endangered right whales from entanglement.

If approved by the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF), it would mark the first time in years that lobstermen could fish in state waters during the seasonal closure.

At a virtual public hearing on Wednesday at 6 p.m., the state will seek feedback from lobstermen, scallopers, clam dredgers, and others who may be affected by the authorization.

Today, there are an estimated 336 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet, with entanglements and vessel strikes being the leading causes of death.

Ropeless fishing advocates say the technology has the potential to eliminate entanglements altogether because it allows lobstermen to set their traps on the seafloor and float them to the surface only when they’re triggered via an app, rather than keeping buoy lines stagnant in the ocean.

But ropeless opponents say an ocean full of traps that aren’t marked by buoys would mean that lobstermen could unknowingly entangle their gear in the gear of other fishermen, who may not be able to detect the presence of buoy-less gear, creating dangerous and costly situations. Many lobstermen also point to the changes the fishery has already made to protect the whales: they’ve embraced gear marking, closures, vessel speed limits, and “breakaway” lines designed to snap when a whale get entangled.

In their authorization letter, the Pioneers say fishing with “on demand” traps in two discrete areas near Boston Harbor and along the South Shore during the state’s seasonal closure, which runs from Feb. 1 to May 15, will allow officials to study the gear’s safety, reliability, and technical usability as it relates to potential for gear conflicts.

Each of the five experienced commercial lobstermen, who are collaborating with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is asking to fish with a maximum of 10 20 pot trawls. They anticipate a maximum of 117 hauls using ropeless gear during the closure period and say they’d adhere to a 10 knot speed limit as an extended precaution to protect right whales in the area.

The hearing, according to the DMF, will be an opportunity for fishermen and the public an opportunity to learn about this proposed study and ask questions.

Written comment will be accepted until close of business on Monday, January 17, 2022. They can be submitted by e-mail (marine.fish@mass.gov) or post (251 Causeway Street, Boston, MA 02114). All public comments should be directed to the attention of Director Daniel McKiernan.