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November 15, 2018

Ropeless lobster fishing? Stakeholders get a progress report

The Ropeless Consortium, a group of scientists and other interested stakeholders hosted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, met Nov. 6 to consider the prospects of ropeless fishing to reduce whale entanglements with lobster gear.

"It was very cool to see how advanced the technology is and the many companies and groups working on development around the world," Zack Klyver, lead naturalist for Bar Harbor Whale Watch, who attended the meeting, told the Mount Desert Islander.

According to the consortium's website, the meeting followed on a February workshop to consider development and funding for ropeless fishing, in response to a decline in the endangered North Atlantic right whale population. Fishing gear entanglements cause the majority of right whale deaths, and also contribute to declining calving rates through the prolonged health effects of non-lethal entanglements, according to a consortium news release.

"The development and eventual operational use of rope-less fishing has the exciting promise to eliminate all trap/pot gear entanglements, the cause of most right whale entanglement deaths," the release said.

The recent meeting, hosted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, included presentations on available ropeless fishing products, prototypes in development and testing results from this year, as well as discussion of progress overcoming regulatory challenges, fisheries outreach, establishing experimental fisheries, and funding opportunities and challenges.

The meeting was closed to the press.

"While we respect and appreciate the importance of media on right whale issues, many of the presentations are of works in progress that are being shared in confidence among colleagues," according to an announcement of the meeting of the consortium's website "It would be detrimental to the study, the researchers, and the whales if the results of work in progress appeared in the media prior to their publication in a scientific journal."

The latest assessment of the North Atlantic right whale population is "bleak," the consortium said. The number of whales increased from around 270 in 1990 to almost 500 whales in 2010. Since 2010, however, the population has declined and now has fewer than 450 animals.

A variety of approaches, including seasonal closures, weak links, sinking ground lines, and fewer traps per trawl, have been tried in different areas along the East Coast, "and while some of these efforts have undoubtedly helped, none has solved the problem."

Ropeless fishing ideas under consideration include bottom-stowed rope — an end line that is wrapped around a buoyant spool or housed together with a buoy in a casing such as a cylinder or hollow trap. Upon acoustic command from the gear owner's surface modem to the trap modem, the spool or buoy releases from the trap (or from the first trap in a trawl) and floats to the surface with the end line. Once at the surface, the fisherman can retrieve the spool or buoy and haul in the trap or trawl using the end line. A few fishermen in the Australian rock lobster fishery have used bottom-stowed rope operationally, and a prototype of the spooled end line concept has been developed in the United States.

The meeting was held a day before the meeting of the annual North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium in which research, new techniques, management strategies and other facets of right whale conservation were shared.

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