By Doreen Leggett
“We do these routinely. They are rarely controversial. But this one is.”
Those words were from Dan McKiernan, director of Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, as he opened a public hearing earlier this month to get comments on a proposal from five lobstermen, calling themselves “Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co-Existence,” to test on-demand gear, often called ropeless, in an area closed to fishing to protect North Atlantic Right Whales.
To do so, the state needs to grant a “Letter of Authorization,” done for a variety of reasons as fishermen and scientific organizations seek to do research. The request was put forward by long-time lobstermen under pressure from federal fishery officials and others to see if ropeless, or “on demand” gear, will enable them to continue fishing traps without buoys and lines, a higher tech way to catch lobsters without entangling mammals.
Although McKiernan said these studies are important, on-demand gear is not something the state is pursuing to protect the right whale because of its very high cost and concerns it will create conflicts with other fishermen, such as draggers, who use Massachusetts waters.
“We all recognize that the advancement of this gear raises some serious questions,” he said to those who attended the virtual event on Jan. 12.
McKiernan and others fear that the expensive technology, which costs about $4,500 a trawl would change the industry, knocking out recreational lobstermen, student licensees, smaller harvesters on the Outer Cape, shrinking a historically small, owner-operated fleet into one owned by consolidated interests.
Most of the lobstermen meeting had those concerns, and others. But the idea found support from environmental advocacy groups, including Pew Research Center.
A decision on whether to allow the experiment is expected before February 1.
Several fishermen mentioned the area in question was closed because it was the time of year right whales were present. Bob Glenn, with the state division, agreed.
“We have without question the largest aggregation of North Atlantic Right whales observed anywhere in the world,” Glenn said.
The closed area extends to the New Hampshire border from January to April 30, with an option to extend into May if whales remain.
Lobsterman Fred Penney said using any gear, even what is being called “whale-safe,” is more dangerous than not having any gear in the water at all.
“It’s a closed area. I don’t think you need to talk any more about it,” agreed lobsterman Jim Bartlett.
He said the group of five lobstermen who are testing the gear should test it when the area is open.
The purpose of the exercise is to collect data on efficiency of hauling and setting in close proximity to judge efficacy; gather data on premature release; test durability in winter conditions; and collect on successful acoustic trigger rates. Two systems will be tested.
“All trawls will be outfitted with acoustic releases (one end only) and pop-up buoys manufactured by EdgeTech. A subset of each fisher’s pop-up buoys will additionally be outfitted with Blue Ocean Gear Smart Buoys to detect the potential for premature release of acoustic releases and provide further positioning data,” the proposal reads. One boat will additionally equip the other end of five trawls with SMELTS – Sea Mammal Education Learning Technology Society – which also makes an inflatable pop-up system.
Five fishermen will play out 117 ropeless trawls, and take other safety measures, including traveling at slower speeds and leaving when a right whale is sighted. All the lobstermen working with the gear, paid for by the federal government, have tested it in the past.
Captain William Bartlett said no one disputes that the gear can work. The issue is that it didn’t work in the real world. Why test it in an area where there isn’t a possibility for gear conflicts?
Others said lobstermen have continually improved on gear to reduce conflicts with whales, including break away gear that has even proved successful with young whales. They have also agreed to closures for almost six months a year and have managed to still have a successful fishery. All these changes were made when the “unusual mortality” event that is helping to drive additional measures happened in a different country and are driven by animal welfare groups that don’t help feed the nation.
“We aren’t the culprit, we shouldn’t be punished,” was the message.
And it’s not just individual lobstermen against the endeavor. The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association came out against it with president Beth Casoni saying the risks far outweigh benefits.
“Your data will be flawed” added Jeff Souza, adding that there won’t be information on the gear conflicts that will go on. “That flawed data will be used against us in the future.”
Lane, a member of the Pioneers, seemed taken aback by some of the negative comments directed his way.
He said they were not intending to be “greedy” or “selfish,” they wanted to keep the lobster fishery going. The fishery has seen more closures and bigger closures over the years, even with weak rope and breaking line. Ropeless gear may be the way to go. It may not work, but he wants to give it an “honest” look.
“It’s in the best interest of fishermen at heart,” he said. “We don’t have any tools in our tool box.”
Tom McShane, of Dewey Square group, said he hopes the pioneers are successful as they have been piloting the technology for seven years.
“I realize change is emotional and difficult,” McShane said. “The risk isn’t from this application … the risk is from unfettered rope in the water. This is a great step forward.”
People such as Erica Fuller, with the Conservation Law Foundation, said work like this helps promote technology and helps make it more accessible and less expensive.
The state, which has been unsuccessfully sued and is under intense pressure to protect whales, is applying for an incidental take permit under the Endangered Species Act. DMF, with industry support, has made a number of regulatory changes – including lines breaking at reduced strength and additional closures – and are hoping they meet with federal approval. Lobstermen at the hearing were concerned because they were told if the experimental gear did injure or kill a whale the entire fishery would pay the price.