The Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) filed an application with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in June for an exempted fishing permit (EFP) to test ropeless fishing gear in New England. Up to 100 commercial lobster boats would be permitted to test ropeless gear; 30 of those boats would be allowed to fish in areas closed to lobstering under the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Specifically, each of the 100 vessels could replace up to ten existing trawls with trawls containing three or more ropeless traps.
NEFSC states that the purpose of the EFP application is “to expand trials of on-demand fishing gear that uses one or no surface buoys and to test the ability of gear marking systems to consistently locate gear.” The new permit would expand the trial to up to 100 participating vessels, for a total of up to 1,000 modified trawls, and would conclude on May 1, 2023.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) submitted comments on the application staunchly opposing the testing of ropeless gear in seasonal whale closures, citing safety, enforcement and equity concerns.
In its comments, the MLA noted that the research aims cited by NEFSC does not address the MLA’s concern as to how lobstermen—operating under normal conditions—can accurately locate gear fished without a surface buoy and share that information with law enforcement and other commercial fishermen. “Answering this question is essential to addressing significant concerns regarding electronic gear marking, gear efficiency, gear conflicts, safety, gear loss, enforcement and other operational and economic impact aspects of ‘ropeless’ fishing,” wrote the MLA.
In addition, the MLA stated that repeated field trials of expensive gear retrieval systems are not necessary. “Fishermen have already demonstrated success in customizing acoustic ropeless systems to work on a pilot basis and the ability to haul back gear from a galvanic release or by grappling. What is needed, and what the NEFSC’s proposal does not adequately address, is hard data and information about the effectiveness of tools to locate on-demand gear in active fishing grounds with multiple users and gear types.”
“Once fishermen have an accurate, consistent, affordable way to locate gear without a surface buoy, there are many options to retrieve the gear. Given the diversity of the lobster fleet, these must include a range of solutions from high tech to low tech across multiple price points,” the MLA stated.
In its comments, the MLA made clear the grave injustice of allowing those lobstermen participating in the EFP to fish in closed areas. “This approach will create highly unproductive, unhelpful and unnecessary conflicts within the local lobster fishery and between the lobster fishery and NMFS. … The study design exacerbates the economic harm to non-participants because lobster that would otherwise be caught upon reopening of the closure will instead have been harvested by participants in the EFP. … These adverse results need not occur if research on ropeless gear is designed to be conducted in areas that are open to fishing and the gear being tested is deployed under realistic operating conditions,” the MLA stated.
“We are not opposed to research that addresses key questions to further understanding of how on-demand gear could operate in a commercial fishery,” Patrice McCarron, MLA executive director said. “NMFS should pursue research designs that evaluate all buoyless solutions on active fishing grounds using vessels of all configurations.”