Apr 27, 2022 | Over the Bar

Over the Bar

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Seufert

By John Pappalardo

There’s plenty of steam building to require on-demand trap fishing gear – “ropeless” lobster pots – to protect endangered Right Whales. And it sure seems like a way to solve a big problem; get lines out of the water with sophisticated technology, end entanglements.

That may turn out to be true, someday. But how we get there, if we get there, depends on answering crucial questions most of us don’t consider, or understand.

Meanwhile, Cape Cod lobstermen, and others in Massachusetts, have been international leaders changing the way we fish to better protect whales; 90-percent reduction in risk of entanglements since 2014, fewer and fewer lines in the water, new lines that part under pressure and don’t snare animals, large swaths of ocean closed for months when whales arrive. We do know of only two Right Whale entanglements in state waters in this century, both successfully disentangled, neither life threatening.

Just when it seemed the Right Whale population was rebounding, entanglements and deaths in Canada created a major crisis caused by heavy lines we don’t use, in areas Right Whales never used to visit.

Our pragmatic, successful efforts may not be “sexy.” They may not help high-tech companies looking to create new markets for high-profit technologies. But they work. None of the Cape’s lobstermen have gotten or expect big public kudos, but neither – not by a longshot — should they be demonized.

I mention all this because I hear a drumbeat, an undercurrent surfacing more and more:

Anyone who raises questions about “ropeless” technology somehow is anti-whale.

In the face of that, it takes public, political, and personal courage for the Massachusetts Director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, Dan McKiernan, to write a thoughtful, lengthy denial of a request to allow experimental ropeless fishing gear in Massachusetts Bay. His denial applies to state, not federal waters, where they have been approved to experiment.

The proposal McKiernan denied would have allowed a small, select group of lobstermen into an area closed to everyone else to experiment with ropeless gear, presumably to prove they can drop it down, keep track of it, and pick it up. But the biggest problems about ropeless don’t have to do with whether traps would pop up on electronic demand. It’s about how this invisible gear would interact with all the other fishing effort in areas not closed, how to avoid “zoning” the ocean to make these pots tenable, how expensive they would be. And so, as McKiernan writes:

The proposal lacks a study design that will contribute meaningfully to further understanding the efficacy of ropeless fishing technology and addressing the key research questions necessary to determining the commercial viability and broader development of this gear.

He posits six key questions and then comments:

  • 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; and
  • can through hull transducers improve the time of retrieval.

Research proposals into the efficacy of ropeless fishing technologies must attempt to meaningfully contribute to the knowledge base regarding one or more of these critical areas … Your research proposal fails to do this with any specificity. Rather, the objectives of your proposal focus principally on the efficacy of the gear in terms of deployment, location, and retrieval. This would only serve to reinforce what we already know—the gear can be successfully deployed, located, and retrieved.

There’s a second major point McKiernan highlights:

Given the proposed research areas are closed to all lobster fishing, this proposal does not contribute to further risk reduction of entanglement and improve right whale conservation.

Then comes his third main finding:

There is no significant lobster fishery management issue this proposal would solve concerning the state waters lobster trap fishery.

That’s because there has been a seven-year seasonal closure in the area where Right Whales come into state waters every spring. The closure has worked, while lobster landings remain strong. So there’s no demand or reason to create more potential conflict and fishing traffic in that area, ropeless or not.

Just so people don’t misunderstand him, McKiernan added the following:

I am in favor of research and development of ropeless fishing technologies. I welcome organized gear trials wherever (state or federal waters) it would be conducive to successful testing—even if the gear testing locations may not be the locations where the gear would be fished in the future … I urge the principal investigators to collaborate closely with gear technologists and professional researchers to develop sufficiently robust study designs that will provide data necessary to answering key questions regarding the development and application of ropeless gear in the New England lobster fishery or as a means of addressing specific critical questions related to lobster trap fishery management in Massachusetts’ state waters.

In other words, we need impeccable science, with management solving real-world challenges, before we place all our hope on unproven, expensive, Star Wars-style technology meant to ensure two things; the future of Right Whales, and our community’s fishery.

That insight doesn’t make people like McKiernan, or us, anti-whale, anti-coexistence, anti-conservation.

On the contrary. Engagement like this, building coalitions without needing to demonize or stereotype, is where the real hope lies.

John Pappalardo, CEO, The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance


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