November 20, 2023 —
Jake O’Neill, Conservation Law Foundation, (617) 850-1709, [email protected]
Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, (508) 451-3853, [email protected]
Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Conservation Law Foundation secure federal grant to improve on-demand fishing gear
Massachusetts-based conservation organizations, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) are among the recipients of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) New England Gear Innovation Fund. WDC and CLF were awarded $398,750 of grant funds which are dedicated to projects driving the development and adoption of innovative fishing gear technologies that will reduce entanglement risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Fewer than 360 North Atlantic right whales remain with only approximately 70 reproductive females. The feeding and mating habitats for these whales overlap with important commercial fishing areas leading to whales accidentally becoming entangled in fishing gear, specifically the vertical buoy line used to mark the location of gear set to fish on the ocean bottom. Whales that encounter the ropes attached to the surface buoys often panic and roll, causing the rope to wrap around the whale, sometimes cutting into flesh and bones, causing lethal infections. NOAA has determined that accidental entanglements are the leading cause of death to the species, followed by vessel strikes.
In an effort to reduce entanglement risk, NOAA has seasonally restricted commercial fisheries that use vertical buoy lines during seasons when right whales are known to be present. Currently, a little over 63,000 square miles along the US east coast are closed to fishing with vertical lines for between two and six months of the year.
“We acknowledge the devastating impact that closures have on commercially and culturally important fishing communities,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Our goal is to prevent whale entanglements, not fishing, and we want to work with the industry to find solutions.”
In 2020, WDC and CLF joined forces with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to collaborate on technologies that could be lent to fishermen willing to participate in a gear trial. This gear removes static vertical buoy lines by allowing fishermen to locate and retrieve underwater set traps through an “on-demand” acoustic retrieval process. Operating under a federal exemption fishing permit, commercial fishermen have retrieved gear nearly 4,000 times with a 90% success rate in just the past two years.
WDC and CLF will use these funds to develop an emergency release option, that brings the gear to the surface immediately if a crew member is accidentally pulled over when resetting the gear. In addition, we will develop an alarm system that alerts the mobile fisheries that on-demand gear is in front of them, reducing the likelihood they will snag their nets or dredges in on-demand gear.
“It’s imperative that on-demand fishing works in a variety of conditions and is at least as safe as traditional fishing. One of the most important aspects of this project is the ability to work directly with fishermen to make this gear as functional and safe as possible,” said Erica Fuller, Senior Attorney for Conservation Law Foundation. “We are excited to use these funds to work collectively toward a solution that allows both whales and fisheries to thrive.”
The groups will partner with EdgeTech underwater technologies who will develop the software and make it available to any interested on-demand gear manufacturers ensuring these safety features can be shared industry-wide.
How fishing currently works
How on-demand fishing works
WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading international charity dedicated solely to the worldwide conservation and welfare of all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
Conservation Law Foundation is a regional, nonprofit organization that protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people. We use the law, science, and the market to create solutions that preserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy.