By John Pappalardo
“Ropeless” fishing is the hot new rallying cry when it comes to efforts to save the North Atlantic Right Whale from extinction.
The idea is to get rid of all vertical lines and buoys used to mark fishing gear like lobster pots, and replace them with remote, wireless, electronic equipment that signals underwater locations and releases a pop-up tag on command so gear can get retrieved.
It’s an appealing idea, high-tech, sophisticated, worthy of research. But before we go down this path, we need to be clear about a number of things:
No fisherman I know believes this will work in our environment.
Understand that these are fishermen ready to make serious sacrifices to protect whales; many have already done so. These are fishermen who understand conditions at sea, natural and manmade, better than anyone. These are practical, serious people. Anyone who ignores their wisdom is foolish. Anyone who believes fishermen don’t want to use ropeless gear out of stubbornness, or backwardness, or cheapness, is dead wrong — not to mention insulting.
Know also that this technology is a long, very expensive way from being ready for primetime. Manufacturers of remote gear will no doubt welcome major grants and investments, public interest non-profits might well target well-intentioned funds for such work, and scientific researchers will pursue well-funded projects to explore the possibility. But real-life applications are years and millions of dollars away at best, with nothing resembling a guarantee of success.
In the meantime, whales remain endangered. Practical innovations and protections that help right here, right now, should be front and center in discussions and funding, not in danger of being forced to a back seat.
Everyone from local lobstermen to the New England Aquarium’s scientific team agrees that using “breakaway” line that parts at 1700 pounds of pressure is real, feasible, and protects whales from entanglements – they can swim right through it. Everyone agrees that we can continue to dramatically reduce the total number of vertical lines in the water to reduce risk. Everyone agrees that ship strikes are a major cause of whale injury and death; ropeless technology would not affect that in the least. Everyone agrees that climate change is shifting the habits of right whales, bringing them into new areas, leading to dangerous encounters that our local fishermen and regulators have learned to avoid.
Meanwhile, our historic fishing grounds are not a simplistic, single-minded place. Tens of thousands of men and women pursue a living there in different ways. Some drop pots on the bottom, some drag nets behind their boats, some play out lines with hooks, some line up gillnets. Strong currents and varied bottom create amazing dynamics. Without lines and buoys to serve notice where gear is set, what fishermen call “gear conflict” will become much more serious, leading to many more dangerous moments from running into and over different types of gear. “Conflict” is a polite term for the inevitable life-threatening and economically catastrophic confrontations.
The only way around this would be to zone and subdivide pretty much every fertile part of the ocean, and allow only one kind of fishing in one rectangle; the few places where experiments with ropeless technology have worked see only one kind of fishing in a broad area, like sequestered crab pots in deep water down South. No one believes that’s feasible in our waters, where fish move so fishermen must, where there is historic and vital varieties of effort.
The goal here is to save a species, not destroy a fishery and all the livelihoods it represents, nor subsidize experiments in cutting-edge technology. Given that, shouldn’t our efforts be much more focused on the whales themselves? We have spent millions of dollars and many years learning how to tag and track great white sharks; we can now say with certainty where hundreds of them are located at any one moment. There are fewer than 400 North Atlantic Right Whales left. Could we not use our amazing scientific and technological skill to track them, further hone our protection on them?
We have been doing that for years now, and we have had success. The tragic loss of more than a dozen of these whales a few years ago is what led to this crisis; those deaths took place because of entanglement with very thick Canadian fishing gear in locations that had never before seen right whales. In response, Canadians moved quickly to change their fishing practices to align with what we already do, which makes great sense: For at least a decade, we do not know of a single right whale entanglement with local lobster gear.
Ropeless technology is just one of a score of approaches. It may be the most appealing to people looking for a sleek new solution, but it’s not the best or most practical alternative, and here’s a guarantee: It won’t save any whale anytime soon, and we don’t have the luxury of decades of trial and error.
If people want to think about this and study it for the long term, great. Just don’t substitute this unproven, expensive technology for the wisdom and sacrifice of fishermen who know better, and want to be part of the solution rather than becoming, like the whales, another casualty.