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State denies 'ropeless' fishing proposal: some lobstermen are delighted; others disappointed

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.

To a group of renegade lobstermen, it sounded like a win-win: allow them to use on-demand or “ropeless” fishing gear in Massachusetts waters closed to other lobstermen, as a way to test the technology some claim will help protect endangered whales.

But many of their fellow lobstermen described it “selfish.” At a public hearing, nearly 20 men called the proposal a money grab, warned that testing in such a “sterile environment” would result in flawed data, and feared testing the gear during the closure would put the entire fishery at risk if a whale became entangled.

This week, the state sided with those opponents, denying the proposal on the grounds that it would pose unnecessary risks to endangered North Atlantic right whales and wouldn’t “contribute meaningfully to further understanding the efficacy of ropeless fishing technology.”

Had it been approved, the proposal would have marked the first time in years that lobstermen could fish in state waters from February 15 to May 15.

Still, many North Atlantic right whale advocates believe ropeless fishing technology could be the future of the industry. Rapid testing is crucial, they say, because extinction is looming; the species has been reduced to only about 336 whales, and entanglement and ship strikes are their leading causes of death.

Essentially, ropeless technology works by having lobstermen set a line of traps connected by a rope on the seafloor, and, later, calling the traps to the surface by entering a set of commands into a “deck box.” An inflatable lift bag in an end trap allows the gear to be retrieved. The system eliminates buoys that mark the location of gear all together: without vertical lines extending from the buoys to the seafloor, right whales are far less likely to get entangled, advocates say.

But opponents say eliminating those buoys could cause unintentional entanglements with the gear of other fishermen, such as scallopers and clam dredgers, creating dangerous and costly problems. Electronic gear tracking technology is still in early stages.

Still, several lobstermen have already been testing the ropeless technology during the regular fishing season, under a federal program that provides the gear without cost.

Five of those lobstermen, who call themselves “Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co-Existence,” submitted the proposal — known as a Letter of Authorization — to the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries calling for ropeless equipment to be used in two discrete areas near Boston Harbor and along the South Shore from February to May, during the seasonal closure that applies to 9,000-square-mile areas.

Each fisherman would fish 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.

“Our intention is to share experiences and gained knowledge with manufacturers, scientists, industry, federal and state authorities, political leaders and other interested parties,” the proponents wrote in their proposal. “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.”

They claimed they would have been able to test the durability of ropeless systems in winter conditions and collect data on the efficiency of setting, retrieving and tracking ropeless gear.

But Dan McKiernan, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said the proposal lacked a comprehensive research design and failed to answer questions about how ropeless fishing gear could affect other fishermen working in the same area.

“This seems to us to be more of a, ‘Let's just show folks how we can go fish and prove that it would work,’” he said during a phone interview. “But it was only going to be done in a very, very tiny, discrete area where there would be very little competition for the fishing grounds.”

Organized gear trials, he said, will need to work toward addressing unanswered questions about the use of ropeless gear because lobstermen have already proven that, on a technical level, the technology works.

Some of those key questions, spelled out in a letter McKiernan wrote explaining the denial, include: “Can on-demand systems meet the efficiency of current fishing operations? Can electronic gear marking be used to avoid gear conflicts within and between fisheries? Can on-demand systems meet and/or exceed safety of current practices? Can scalability result in affordability? Can on-demand systems reduce gear loss?”

“We're trying to figure out: where would ropeless fishing fit in in the future?” McKiernan said. “And we were just disappointed that this application didn't seem to address any of those challenges.”

In addition, he wrote, he was concerned that approval would mean there isn’t a non-zero chance of entanglement during the three-month closure, and he didn’t see an industry-wide economic benefit.

“Plainly, outside of a small number of fishers, there is very little interest among the broader industry within state waters in adopting new risk mitigation strategies to accommodate year-round fishing opportunities.”

Beth Casoni, executive director of the Mass. Lobstermen’s Association, said the state made the right call.

“There are a lot of deficiencies in the application and there was no scientific merit for their proposal,” she said. “When we have a closure … there's a zero chance of any interaction between a lobster vertical line and a right whale. To allow a handful of people to go out there and jeopardize that? It's not reasonable.”

But Lori Caron, president of the Pioneers, said the state’s decision was backward.

“To not be exploring ways for these men and women to retain their livelihood? I feel it's inappropriate.”

Ultimately, she said, she was disappointed, but not surprised.

“I thought we were doing the right thing. I thought people would be proud and supportive. I just don't feel that that's the way that we've been received,” she concluded.

Her group has also filed a proposal to fish using ropeless technology in closed federal waters. That proposal is awaiting a decision from regulators.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.