Whales untangled? State contemplates opening closed areas to fishermen using ropeless gear – Cape Cod Times

As North Atlantic right whale population numbers continue to drop, state and federal regulators have implemented gear changes and massive seasonal closures of fishing grounds to reduce the chance of entanglement in fishing gear by an estimated 60%.
But many in the research and animal welfare communities have pinned the survival of this highly endangered whale on the development of new “ropeless” fishing gear that would dramatically reduce the number of vertical lines between lobster and fish pots and surface buoys.
Reducing the lines would slash the risk of entanglement, one of the top two causes of death and injury for right whales, along with ship collisions. 
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Researchers say that years of pilot projects have demonstrated the technology works and that it now needs to be used commercially by fishermen year-round. A group of lobstermen from the South Shore and Cape recently petitioned the state Division of Marine Fisheries to be allowed to deploy it in two areas now closed to protect right whales. 
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“I am very supportive of a small-scale experimental fishery in a closed area that focuses on places that have low whale presence and are routinely monitored,” said Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “We can learn a lot about the practicality of ropeless fishing from such an experimental fishery.”  
Ropeless is a misnomer since there is rope attached to the pots. But instead of a line running from a pot to a surface buoy that risks ensnaring a passing whale, the line is coiled and stored on the bottom and is either fastened to an inflatable bag or connected to a floatation device. The bag inflates or the float is released, and ascends to the surface trailing the buoy line, when it receives a signal from the fishing vessel overhead.
Because scientists have determined that the human impact on right whales needs to be limited to less than one fatality a year if the species is to avoid extinction, regulators have been unwilling to open closed areas to fishermen, even those using ropeless technology. But researchers believe that testing has shown the technology works and they say that exposure in harsh oceanic conditions is what is needed now. 
“The goal is to continue to work with this group. They have the support of a number of NGOs (non-governmental organizations like WHOI and the International Fund for Animal Welfare). This is the logical next step,” said Henry Milliken, a research biologist and gear technology expert working at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole.
Milliken and Baumgartner worked as collaborators with fishermen to develop and test the technology, along with IFAW, supplying equipment and logistical support.
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Milliken said it is not new technology — the release mechanism has been in use for years in other applications like oceanic buoys. Milliken and Baumgartner worked with the group, which includes two fishermen from Marshfield, two from Cohasset and one from Sandwich. They applied for a letter of authorization from DMF (Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries) and those who also hold federal lobster permits applied for experimental fishing permits from NOAA.  
NOAA provided a stipend to the fishermen who participated in the initial trials and purchased the ropeless systems, and are lending them to the five fishermen once they receive their permits.
“That’s been our philosophy, that if they are going to help us develop it (ropeless gear) and provide feedback, we’ll help them offset costs,” said Milliken.
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Each of the fishermen is allowed to use 200 pots in the closed areas, which are located off Marshfield, Scituate and Cohasset. They will be deployed in 20 strings of 10 pots, each fitted with ropeless gear. These areas were picked because whale survey work showed that historically there were very few right whales there. 
DMF Director Daniel McKiernan said that recent gear changes and closed areas that expanded this year to cover most of the state’s coastline and lasts from Feb. 1 to May 15, resulted in a 90% reduction in risk of whale entanglement. He said the new ropeless systems need to be tested in winter storm conditions. 
“The storm at Halloween destroyed over $1 million in lobster traps. When that happens, we want to know how this gear will fare,” said McKiernan. 
McKiernan said each ropeless system costs $4,000. Ten strings of pots is $40,000, and that’s a lot of money, both in the initial investment, and to replace lost gear, he said. He estimated there were around 1,000 commercial lobster fishermen in Massachusetts.
“How do we get to the point in the future where the whole fleet can afford something like this?” asked McKiernan. 
The other issue is the ability for lobstermen to put down pots close to one another as they do now in particularly heavily fished areas. Traditionally, fishermen could see the buoys of another fisherman and put in his or her pots so that they didn’t overlap. 
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But McKiernan wondered if these experimental fisheries would show how lobstermen, and scallop and fish draggers, can use the locator signal from the ropeless gear to accurately locate a string of pots and avoid them. He wondered who would be held responsible for towing a net or dredge through lobster pots with no surface markers. 
“We need to take this out to public comment. We need to make sure that draggers and scallopers are aware of this gear and can avoid it,” he said. 
The DMF is holding a virtual public hearing on the request for a letter of authorization on Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. Pre-registration is at this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_WCwVIV6WS02R7HyRvsxdRw
Email public comments to: [email protected] or written comments can be sent to 251 Causeway Street, Boston MA 02114  Attn. Director Dan McKiernan
Contact Doug Fraser at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @DougFraserCCT.

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