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May 7—Along the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, scientists, engineers, and fishermen are working feverishly to develop a new, high-tech way to harvest lobster — and the result could be the key to the survival of both the U.S. lobster fishery and the imperiled North Atlantic right whale.
But farther north in Maine, the epicenter of the fishery, it's unusually quiet. Only one Maine business is working on the technology, and only a handful of Maine lobstermen will test it. Many won't even discuss it.
The clock is ticking. The lobster industry has less than six years to come up with a method that doesn't rely on ropes dangling in the ocean, the traditional way to haul traps from the seabed. The ropes can also entangle whales, creating a potentially deadly hazard that fishery regulators have tried to mitigate.
On Jan. 1, 2029, regulators can begin writing new whale-protection rules that could change the lobster fishery forever. Lobstermen, who say they've already done enough, fear they'll face sweeping closures of waters they fish and a mandate to cut their ropes. It would mean the complete reinvention of the lobster fishery as it exists today.
A last-minute rider to a federal spending bill granted the fishery the 2029 reprieve and up to $50 million in annual funding to study the whales' movements and figure out how to make ropeless, on-demand fishing viable.
However, there are still major hurdles to overcome before the technology is available on a commercial scale. The ropeless part is being worked out, but another critical component — an interoperable, open platform to track gear — is far from ready. The new equipment also is, at least for now, prohibitively expensive. One lobsterman said it would cost him nearly $500,000 upfront.
And Maine lobstermen need to get on board, or the development and testing happening farther south will be no help to them. Officials say Maine has the country's largest, most diverse lobstering fleet and that the seascape here is not comparable to areas fished in other states. What works in Massachusetts and Rhode Island will not necessarily work in Maine.
Ready or not, the message is clear: Figure out ropeless fishing, or risk not fishing at all.
DANGER FOR WHALES, INDUSTRY
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the federal agency overseeing both lobster fishing and whale protection — contends that entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales.
The animals are nearly extinct, with a current population of fewer than 340, and there are only 70 breeding females. NOAA estimates that over 80% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, though their numbers are also dwindling because of ship strikes and low calving rates.
Maine lobstermen and state officials, however, have argued there is no proof that right whales are getting tangled in Maine lobstering rope.
No right whale deaths have ever been conclusively linked to the state's lobster fishery, and the last known entanglement was in 2004. However, scientists point out that a historic lack of gear marking has made it difficult to tell where a whale may have become entangled.
They also say many right whales that die from entanglement injuries have been found with no rope left on them at all. Any of those whales, the scientists claim, could have been entangled in Maine gear, which forms a virtual rope curtain across high-traffic whale migration routes.
"Given the fact that the Maine fishery accounts for so much of the U.S. lobster industry, it's likely that some of that rope is coming from Maine waters," said Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and vice chair of the institution's ropeless consortium. "This is a problem for the North Atlantic right whales and it's going to become an increasing problem for the fisheries."
The National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency within NOAA, released new regulations in 2021 designed to lower the whales' risk of entanglement. Among the much-debated regulations were new gear marking mandates, a reduction in the number of vertical lines in the water, insertion of breakable points in the lines, and seasonal closure of a nearly 1,000-mile stretch of lobstering grounds in the Gulf of Maine.
But more rule changes are expected in the coming years and if the right whale population continues to decline, there will only be more closures, Baumgartner said.
"Continuing with roped fishing, to me, is perilous for both right whales and the fishing industry," he said. "The only thing that's ever been talked about that provides that kind of promise is on-demand fishing."
Ropeless or on-demand fishing removes the need for a line connecting pot and trap gear to the surface of the water with multiple lines and buoys. Instead, the tethered surface marker, usually either a coiled rope tied to a buoy or buoyant spool, or an inflatable bag that will lift everything upward, is stowed with the rest of the gear on the ocean bottom. The fisherman sends an acoustic signal from the lobster boat to the gear and it rises to the surface.
Over a dozen companies are working on their retrieval methods. Tests so far have been promising, with success percentages in the high 90s. But Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, has said that retrieval needs to be 100% successful if it's going to be adopted. The use of a lift bag vs. a buoy will likely be a matter of personal preference for fishermen.
What's still missing, though, is a way for lobstermen to be able to "see" their gear on the bottom and for other lobstermen to be able to see it too to avoid what's known as gear conflict, when one lobsterman's equipment gets tangled with another's. This is costly and dangerous. Marine patrols also need to be able to detect and retrieve the gear for inspection.
Some trials involve using a cellphone or tablet app and pinging when a trawl is dropped, marking the GPS coordinates. But this method is variable and requires an internet and Bluetooth connection, which isn't always reliable at sea. Any number of factors like tides and weather can cause a disconnect between where the gear is dropped and where it ends up.
The room for error is too great, Baumgartner said.
Some manufacturers have developed acoustic localization methods. An acoustic modem affixed to a trap can communicate information about the trap or trawl to an acoustic modem at the sea surface. The surface modem could be mounted on any vessel and would send out broadcast messages regularly to request information from nearby traps. Fishermen would be able to see their traps and where others are, but not who owns them.
This is the most promising technical solution, Baumgartner said. But there's one snag: Most of the systems that have been developed are proprietary, so if fishermen want to know where everyone's gear is, they'd all have to buy the same gear. A similar scenario would be if iPhones could only call other iPhones, he said.
"That's just ridiculous," Baumgartner said.
He's advocating a set of open standards that would allow the devices of different companies to communicate with each other, so no one company would have a monopoly. This interoperable approach would help promote competition and drive down the considerable costs of ropeless fishing, he said.
NOAA is also seeking to develop some sort of interoperable platform, said Teri Frady, spokesperson for the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Science Center.
Some systems show promising results, but all the efforts are still in the research and development phase. The agency is helping organize a conference later this year to start developing standards so different manufacturers can ensure all gear and detection apps will work together, she said.
With just six years before officials start working on the next set of regulations, there's pressure to smooth out the wrinkles quickly.
NOAA Fisheries is also working with Congress to determine how the $50 million from the federal spending package will be distributed. And NOAA's gear library in Massachusetts currently has about 200 ropeless units from eight different manufacturers. The agency is prioritizing working with New England fishermen who are displaced by area closures, Frady said. Efforts are currently focused in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Frady said it is unlikely that on-demand gear would be appropriate or required everywhere all the time.
"Rather, it's a solution to allow access for fixed gear in areas when and where entanglement risk is currently highest," she said.
But fishery officials are still wary. If more closures are indeed coming, that means more people will be forced to rely on ropeless gear.
The last two years have been difficult for Jeremy Willey, a fourth-generation lobsterman out of Owls Head. A year-round offshore fisherman, the large seasonal closure has ousted him from his usual winter lobstering grounds. The late fall and winter months aren't traditionally the busy season for Maine lobstermen, but for offshore fishermen like Willey, the colder temperatures mean harder shells, bigger lobster, and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year.
Willey said he and the other harvesters who fish in the closed area have been pushed back closer to shore, where they aren't wanted and where it's more crowded.
"Now we're not catching the big lobsters and we're all reaching into the pot for the small ones," he said. He's lost 20% of his volume in the last two years, and he's not alone. Maine lobstermen hauled in the least valuable lobster catch in a decade last year, with both fewer pounds of lobster caught and a lower market price.
"Everybody's feeling it," he said.
But despite the impact the closure has had on his own business, Willey is still resistant to trying on-demand fishing.
The resistance is widespread across Maine's lobster fleet. Keliher, the DMR commissioner, said he knows of maybe a dozen lobstermen out of the roughly 5,000 in the state that is participating in testing.
"There's a lot of peer pressure not to try this gear," he said.
Keliher has a host of concerns. A success percentage in the high 90s isn't good enough. There are safety issues. It's not currently legal to fish without a buoy. Anyone testing on-demand gear needs a special permit. And without gear marking, the technology cannot move forward, he said.
It's also very expensive.
The Conservation Law Foundation released a study in March looking at the cost for Massachusetts state-permitted vessels and federally permitted vessels that fish in some of the state's closed areas.
Using the same breakdown, Willey said it would cost him more than $455,000 to outfit his 46-foot boat with the necessary gear.
"That's more than some guys have spent on their boat and the entire operation," he said. "It needs to be realistically priced so that guys could actually do it."
Frady, the NOAA Northeast Fisheries spokesperson, acknowledged that the initial costs may be a challenge, but that the agency expects prices will decline as production and demand increase. There may also be government-backed incentives and supplemental funding to help, she said.
Willey is willing to test out the gear locators but said there's an industry-wide reluctance to try the gear in general.
"Guys are afraid that if it's proven that it works, it will be forced upon us whether we can do it or not," he said. "And some don't want to talk about it because (trying) it means accepting that we're doing this to the right whales."
Ultimately, the gear will need to be tested in Maine, Keliher said.
"You can't fish this technology in Massachusetts and expect the same results in the state of Maine," he said. "It's an apple-and-orange comparison."
Maine has stronger tides, a rockier ocean bottom, and perhaps most critically, a greater number and density of fishermen.
The Department of Marine Resources is trying to build up its gear library like the one in Massachusetts, but is also exploring other options, Keliher said.
Officials are going to focus on data collection associated with fisheries management and whale patterns. They're exploring a timed-release mechanism, which would be significantly less expensive and less complicated than some of the emerging technology, although there's more room for error.
The DMR is advocating for dynamic management, where a whale sighting in a designated area could prompt a switch to ropeless fishing.
As Willey put it: "Tell us where the damn whales are and we'll fish around them ... I'm hoping to see that rather than move toward these large static closures," he said.
Sam Rosen started testing EdgeTech's on-demand fishing gear early last summer. The Vinalhaven lobsterman is one of about a dozen fishermen who signed on to test gear that he sees as an unfortunate inevitability. His results have been mixed. It's inefficient and inconsistent, he said, but it is manageable.
"The technology works, but it (won't) work for the fishery without major changes to how marking occurs," he said. There will also need to be money to help lobstermen fund the new gear changes and retrofit their boats, as well as money to offset what he believes will be "catastrophic losses" if the technology fails.
Rosen said on-demand gear is not going to solve what conservationists see as a whale problem, but he believes it could play a role in the dynamic management, which he believes is the path forward.
"It's not a solution to everything, but (can be used) as a potential way to fish in an area rather than not being able to fish in it at all," he said.
Like Willey, he stressed the need for a better gear marking system and one that everyone can access, and he believes lobstermen should be involved in the process.
"It's inefficient, not ideal, and really inferior to traditional end lines, but if that's an option on the table, I feel like we need to be involved," he said.
The state Legislature is considering a bill that would incentivize Maine lobstermen to test on-demand fishing gear and its various components. Proposed by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, the bill would create the "Lobster Innovation Fund," which would allot $1 million each year for two years to encourage lobstermen to test ropeless gear.
Industry members were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea in a recent public hearing.
A Maine-based fund would help level the playing field and give the state some "skin in the game," Keliher said.
Rosen and Willey both told members of the Marine Resources Committee that most of the money should come from the federal government since federal officials are the ones pushing for new regulations, but added that any incentives to test the gear, especially gear marking methods, are welcome.
A MAINE SOLUTION?
David Capotosto and Bud Vincent expected some Maine fishermen to be resistant to testing their ropeless fishing technology, but they didn't expect to be stonewalled.
"Maine is the epicenter of the issue," Capotosto said. "We knew that one day, our neighbors who are fishermen will wake up and be told 'You can't fish,' and we'll need an alternative. ... That day has come."
Ropeless Systems Inc., based in Biddeford, is the only Maine company to jump into the fray, and Capotosto and Vincent believe it's the only company to provide the solution.
Despite being headquartered in Biddeford, all of the product development and testing is happening in Rhode Island.
"We believe we have the solution that's being asked for by NOAA and by the fishermen," Vincent said. "Yet we've had difficulty getting it tested (locally)."
Maine is working to amass a gear library like the one in Massachusetts, and as a Maine company, Vincent and Capotosto believe Ropeless Systems should be one of the first systems included.
Capotosto is president of DeepWater Buoyancy Inc., which produces subsea buoyancy products, and Vincent is president of DBV Technology, an underwater acoustic research and design company.
"Our business is to huck stuff into the ocean and get it back," Capotosto said.
Ropeless Systems adopted a technology called the Ropeless RISER and an "acoustic lift bag actuator" from DBV Technology.
They believe it's a "fisher-centric solution."
The patent-pending technology reportedly allows fishermen to see their traps' actual location in real-time on a chart plotter and call them to the surface at the press of a button.
The system also knows when the traps hit the water and automatically records the location without GPS coordinates or reporting to a universal database, Capotosto said. It also shows where other lobstermen's traps are, but doesn't provide any identifying information, to prevent gear conflict.
Capotosto said the system is designed to allow fishermen to change their fishing operations as little as possible.
"Granted, they don't have acoustics and they don't have airbags, but the fishing operation itself, we've mimicked that very very closely," he said. "We have a little phrase, it's called 'fish like you fish now.' "
The technology is currently being tested in Narragansett Bay, more than 120 miles from Maine. Capotosto and Vincent are building pre-production units for NOAA and the Canadian Wildlife Federation to test this summer. The business partners believe they'll be ready for high-speed, high-volume manufacturing next year.
Capotosto said that lobstermen, particularly Maine lobstermen, are the true conservationists. They've tended to the fishery for decades. So they should be a part of its next stage.
"Why wouldn't we be leading this effort?" he said. "I understand the politics and I understand the feelings and I understand the fear of change and the fear of the cost and all of those things, but this is coming ... So why would we be the tail instead of the head?"