Steaming Ahead for February 2018

Hardly a day goes by without seeing a disturbing headline about North Atlantic right whales. It is true that right whales are not faring well right now, but it is not true that the full burden of solving this issue falls on the shoulders of Maine lobstermen.
There are some unfortunate facts that we must come to grips with. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the right whale population increased steadily from 1990 to 2010, growing from 270 to 483 whales. However, the stock has declined since then, to 458 whales in 2015. Based on last year’s spate of whale deaths, it is certain that this decline has continued.
Another alarming statistic is that female right whales are dying at a faster rate than males, notably 150% faster, and therefore they are not producing young for as long as they have in the past. Males now live an average of 50 years, while females only live an average of 30 years. As of 2016, scientists estimated that there were 273 males and only 178 females in the population. The net result has been fewer right whale calves being born in recent years. North Atlantic right whales had only five calves in 2017, and none have been sighted in 2018. By contrast, 20 calves were born in 2013, 17 in 2015 and 14 in 2016. The bottom line is that more right whales are dying each year than are being born and there are fewer females surviving to have babies. It’s a double whammy for the population.
We also know that the ocean environment is changing and that has had a significant impact on right whales. Other than in Cape Cod Bay, scientists are not sighting right whales in their usual favorite spots, and this distributional shift coincides with their decline in population.
So, why is there so much focus on the lobster industry? According to researchers, fishing gear entanglements now account for 82% of documented right whale mortalities, while the remaining 18% are caused by ship strikes. Eighty-five percent of all right whales bear scars from being entangled at least once in their lives, and more than half have been entangled two or more times. Additional research has shown that even when entanglement doesn’t kill a whale, the whale suffers a decline in health due to the drag of the gear and other injuries. When researchers talk about entanglement, they are talking about rope. Despite the fact that 12 of the 17 right whale deaths in 2017 were attributed to Canada, fishing rope has become public enemy number one in the whale conservation community. Unfortunately for Maine lobstermen, we use a lot of it.
These factors have converged and elevated the survival of the North Atlantic right whale issue to urgent status. There is already one lawsuit filed against NMFS seeking more stringent whale protection measures for the lobster fishery; a second suit is expected to be filed. The MLA will work diligently to ensure that Maine is not held accountable for whale deaths that have occurred in Canada. But in the meantime, the deaths and decline in population have laid the perfect groundwork for two long-standing ideas to be dusted off: weak rope and ropeless fishing.
I get a lot of calls about what these actually mean, so I will attempt to explain them here. The idea of weak rope evolved from an analysis of ropes removed from entangled right whales. The ropes were examined and breaking strengths measured. A breaking strength of 1700 pounds emerged as the cutoff point: in ropes weaker than 1700 pounds, whales broke free with minor injury; in ropes greater than 1700 pound-strength, whales suffered more serious injury or death. Obviously, lobstermen fish strong ropes in order to keep themselves safe on the boat and protect their investment on bottom. MLA is working with the Department of Marine Resources to measure the operational breaking strengths of vertical lines currently being fished so that we have a baseline, and to measure the working load of vertical line needed for offshore vessels to safely operate. Once we have this data, we will be in a better position to assess how any management option based on weak endlines might affect Maine lobstermen.
Ropeless fishing has been in the headlines a lot lately, and there is much confusion over what this means. Ropeless fishing is a bit of a misnomer. The gear is not actually fished without rope; instead, the rope is sunk to the bottom with the trap.
A lobsterman in Eastern Australia fishes his gear with a sunken rope system. The company which produces that technology, Desert Star Systems (, is now marketing this solution for U.S. East Coast fisheries. Their marketing headline is “It’s time to get serious about preventing whale entanglements.” A video on YouTube demonstrates how the technology works: The company claims that there are currently 300 traps being fished in Australia using this system.
MLA’s vice president Kristan Porter fished with the Australian lobsterman using this system. He fishes single traps and does not share bottom with any other fishermen. Unlike Maine lobstermen, he fishes a small number of traps and has his own piece of bottom to work. Kristan said that they hauled a whopping 14 single traps on the day he fished with him because the system is so time-consuming to retrieve and deploy.
The system involves packing the endline and buoys into a mesh bag. The bag is secured shut with an acoustic release. The trap is set, followed by a 10-fathom line connected to the mesh bag containing the endline. To retrieve the gear, the boat positions itself above the trap, which is identified through an onboard computer. The computer sends a signal via a sonar transducer to release the device holding the rope-filled bag on the bottom. The device releases, opening the bag, and the buoy and rope float to the surface. The gear is then grappled and hauled at the surface as usual. To reset the gear, the rope is repacked into the mesh bag, secured, and then the acoustic release is rearmed. According to the Desert Star website, the cost of obtaining the unit for the boat, including the transducer, software and acoustic devices, would be approximately $140,000 (based on 80 units or 800 traps set with 10-trap trawls).
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is developing a ropeless fishing prototype, which is also a sunken rope system. The Woods Hole prototype involves coiling the rope around a spool and deploying that to the bottom with the trap. Scientists have said that multiple options for “ropeless fishing” could be developed including 1) bottom-stowed rope as described above, such as on a spool, in a bag or in an empty trap, 2) variable buoyancy traps involving traps that are negatively buoyant but become positively buoyant through a piston pump or compressed air that fills a bladder upon receiving the acoustic signal, or 3) a docking system through which fishermen would deploy a docking vehicle from the vessel to connect to a docking station on the trap, which is then hauled via a vertical line.
I know, it sounds crazy, but don’t kill the messenger here. I just want to be sure you understand the current situation for right whales and what “ropeless fishing” is all about right now. MLA’s job is to educate all of these stakeholders on the reality of what it takes to fish for lobster in the Gulf of Maine and to remain profitable. Scaling up a new technology used for just 300 traps to a fishery with over 4,000 active lobstermen and nearly 3 million traps is not reasonable. And asking lobstermen to add a $140,000 system in order to sink gear while creating a mountain of safety, gear conflict and enforcement issues is not a solution that passes the straight face test.
I will be attending many whale meetings over the next few months, and will be at the whale meeting on Saturday during the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. See you there.
As always, stay safe on the water.

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