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Lobsterman vs. Lobsterman: Fight Over ‘Ropeless’ Fishing Divides Industry

rob martin ropeless
Eve Zuckoff
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Rob Martin, a member of the "Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co Existence" group, uses ropeless lobster fishing gear in Cape Cod Bay.

A proposal by a group of commercial lobstermen for special permission to test “ropeless” fishing gear during a seasonal closure ran into fierce opposition last night from fellow lobstermen.

The conflict within the lobster fishing community is the latest front in an ongoing battle over what accommodations fishermen can and should make to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

At a virtual hearing last night, the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF), presented the case of five commercial lobstermen who are seeking a Letter of Authorization to test the controversial equipment from February 1 to May 15 in state waters that are otherwise closed to lobster fishing to protect a large congregation of right whales that feed off the Massachusetts coast. The closed area includes Cape Cod Bay, the back side of Cape Cod, and adjacent federal waters, and was expanded farther north to the New Hampshire border in 2021 after an increased presence of right whales was detected in the area.

Ropeless, or on-demand technology, allows lobstermen to set their traps on the seafloor and bring them to the surface only when they’re triggered via an app. The acoustic signal system removes vertical buoy lines, which are known to entangle right whales.

An estimated 336 North Atlantic right whales are left. Their numbers have been dwindling, with the chief causes of mortality being ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

The lobstermen asking the state to approve the test at last night's hearing call themselves “Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co Existence.” The say ropeless technology offers hope to save the species and fishery.

But critics say regulatory, financial, and technical problems still abound for ropeless gear. They point to significant questions around gear marking: an ocean full of traps that aren’t marked by buoys would mean that lobstermen could unknowingly entangle their gear in gear set by other fishermen, like scallopers and clam dredgers, creating dangerous and costly situations.

Several of the Pioneers have already been testing the technology during the regular lobster season, under a federal program that provides the gear without cost. But if their latest proposal is approved, it would mark the first time since 2015 that lobstermen could fish during the closure.

“This project is intended to contribute to the long-term conservation value by moving forward a critical step as it relates to the viability of acoustics retrieval as a way for the American Lobster Fishery to thoughtfully coexist with the North Atlantic right whale in areas regulated closed to static vertical lines for right whale protection,” the proponents wrote in their proposal.

“Our intention is to share experiences and gained knowledge with manufacturers, scientists, industry, federal and state authorities, political leaders and other interested parties. We are hopeful that this [work] … will help managers develop rules to assist fishermen in maintaining their economic viability of the lobster fishery while protecting right whales.”

The five experienced lobstermen, who are asking to use the gear in two discrete areas near Boston Harbor and along the South Shore, say they will be able to test the durability of ropeless systems in winter conditions, gather some information about potential gear conflict, and collect data on the efficiency of setting, retrieving, and tracking ropeless gear.

Each fisherman would fish up to a maximum of 10 20-pot trawls, and an estimated 117 hauls would be completed during the trial. To protect whales in the area, the boats would operate within a 10-knot speed limit and retreat if a right whale came within 500 yards of the boats.

Mike Lane, one of the Pioneers who attended the hearing, said the group hopes to learn if ropeless technology will be able to keep the fishery alive as the threat of additional closures loom.

“We have so much in front of us,” he said during the hearing. “I just hate to close down ropeless without giving it an honest look and honest shot. And I’m not saying this is gonna work at all. I’m just saying, ‘Can we look at it and try it?’”

Several representatives from conservation groups applauded the Pioneers’ effort.

“We can’t close our way to effective conservation,” said Patrick Ramage, speaking on behalf of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Solutions have to be found that protect North Atlantic right whales while maintaining fishermen’s access to important fishing areas, and we need to find them fast.”

But nearly 20 commercial lobstermen at the meeting said they were opposed for multiple reasons.

Many said testing the gear during the closure puts the entire fishery at risk if a whale does get entangled.

“If these five individuals want to test this gear from the 15th of May to the 1st of February, I’m all for that,” said Tim Bartlett. “But it’s a closed area. Let’s not open ourselves up to an entanglement that doesn’t need to happen.”

That sentiment was echoed by Truro lobsterman Jeff Souza.

“If there’s a premature release at midnight and they don’t get out there and a whale does get entangled, it’s going to put all of us out of business,” Souza said. “And those [five] guys aren’t gonna pay my boat or my mortgage.”

The larger fear for the lobster fishery was summarized in an opposition letter submitted by the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association (MLA).

“The Project raises great concern given the time of year and the high density of right whales being present in the [Massachusetts Bay Restricted Area] here in the Commonwealth,” wrote association Executive Director Beth Casoni. “Why should five fishermen or any number of fishermen risk the entire commercial lobster industry given the sensitivity of timing and the Commonwealth’s efforts in acquiring an Incidental Take Permit?“

In April 2020, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts ordered the state to obtain an incidental take permit from NOAA Fisheries, which allows permit holders to proceed with legal activities, like lobster fishing, that can result in harm to a threatened species.

“This Project gives NO assurances that there will be zero interactions with right whales and that is a risk the MLA cannot support,” Casoni said.

But Mark Baumgartner, a marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and vice chair of the Ropeless Consortium, said he had worked with the Pioneers and supported the location where they chose to test the gear.

“They’ve chosen an area that’s fairly low risk in terms of right whale occurrence. And so that’s helpful,” he said. “[Also,] there haven’t been any premature releases in several hundred trials of this technology.”

“Ropeless has a long way to go to prove its efficacy,” Baumgartner added, “and we need to do these studies in order to gather the data to be able to say whether this is going to be a reasonable approach to mitigating whale entanglements.”

Still, critics said, this kind of test should only be done during the regular fishing season, with the majority of lobstermen on the water and participation from mobile gear fishermen. That would allow regulators, scientists, and developers to see how well ropeless technology interacts with other gear. Otherwise, lobstermen warned, testing in such a “sterile environment” would result in flawed data.

“This experiment proves absolutely nothing. You take five or six boats and you spread those guys out … they’re never going to encounter any other gear,” said William Bartlett. “It’s a closed area. All this is proving is that the buoy comes to surface, which has already been proven.”

Bartlett added that he also felt it was unfair. “It’s giving them exclusive rights to fish in a closed area at a high price for lobsters when nobody else can do it,” he said. “It’s nothing but selfishness.”

At the end of the hearing, proponent Mike Lane said the critics misunderstood the motives behind the proposal.

“I guess I’m the bad fishermen in the group here, considering all my fellow friends out there,” Lane said. “But just so the other fishermen know, none of this is with the intent to be greedy. This is really just to keep the ball moving in a direction to keep us fishing one way or another.”

“To ignore this technology and just try to brush it back under the table and act like it doesn’t exist I think is the wrong avenue for the lobstermen,” Lane said.

The state is expected to release its decision about the proposal later this month.

Three of the five Pioneers also hold federal permits, so according to the Massachusetts DMF, they will need NOAA Fisheries to first issue an experimental fishery permit before DMF can issue a letter of authorization.

Dan McKiernan, director of the Massachusetts DMF, said he appreciated the sincerity of the emotion on both sides and the controversial nature of the issue. He also sounded a cautionary note about ropeless technology’s effect on individual lobstermen.

“We really want to see, at the end of all of this, a professional, profitable fishery with some heterogeneity,” McKiernan said. “What we’re afraid of is the costs that are going to be incurred may only be payable by corporate interests or deep-pocketed interests. And the fishery as we know it right now is a very large number of owner-operated small businessmen, and we’re very nervous that this technology might transition this fishery because the owner-operator business model might not be able to survive.”

To submit a comment about the proposal, the state is accepting emails at marine.fish@mass.gov until Monday, January 17, 2022. Comments can also be sent by mail 251 Causeway Street, Boston, MA 02114. They should be directed to the attention of Director Daniel McKiernan.