Innovative new technology is being developed in order to decrease the risk of accidental entanglements to whales and other marine wildlife in trap- pot fishing gear. Trap-pot fishing gear is most often used to fish for lobsters, crab, and some types of fish. Traps and/or pots are set on the ocean bottom to fish and are marked by a rope which attaches to a buoy at the surface, enabling fishers to find and haul the gear.
Entanglements are a tragic accident. Not only do they impact whales, they also negatively impact the fishing industry through loss of expensive gear, or broadscale closures which prevent fishing and can harm communities as fishing itself remains a main source of income for many families.
How can on-demand fishing gear help whales?
Whales, dolphins and other marine life sometimes accidentally swim into vertical lines in the water that connect something on the bottom (like a trap or an anchor) to something at the top (like a buoy or even a boat). Unfortunately, the common response for whales encountering a line is to roll into the gear, wrapping the line around their body. For kelp or seaweed – a natural “vertical line” – rolling easily breaks the wrap and it slides right off a whale. But for modern fishing lines, made out of tough, super-strong material designed not to break, this leads to an entangled whale.
Entangling lines can restrict the whales movements, restrict their ability to feed, cut into their flesh, and/or cause chronic infections which can eventually kill the whale. Even for those whales lucky enough to free themselves or be “disentangled” by trained and permitted professional disentanglement teams, they may still suffer long-term impacts. For example, research shows that whales who have been entangled are less likely to reproduce. Entanglement has become a leading cause of population decline for many species, particularly the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The biggest source of entanglement risk to large whales in US waters is currently from buoy lines used trap-pot fishing gear.
What is on-demand fishing gear?
How can both whales and fishing co-exist without a risk to either of them? On-demand fishing gear!
On-demand gear does actually use some rope, but the key difference is a change in where, when, and how long buoy lines are in the water. In some systems, the buoy line is coiled and stowed with or near the fishing gear on the ocean bottom, and is only “called” to surface when a fisher is actively retrieving their gear. “Calling” the gear requires a computer system to acoustically release the buoy line, allowing it to come to the surface where it can be collected by the fisher in the same way they would for a “traditional” vertical line. ..
Other systems being tested do not include vertical line at all. Instead, the fishing gear is attached to a deflated bag or buoy and the fisher uses a similar acoustic trigger to cue inflation of the bag when they are ready to collect the trap. The whole system then floats to the surface.
Multiple systems are being successfully tested in both the U.S. and Canada.
How fishing currently works
How on-demand fishing works
Challenges and Solutions
Challenge: Gear Conflicts
Removing buoys means that other fishers don’t know where traps are set and might drag mobile gear or set their traps over someone else’s gear.
Both mobile and fixed gear fishing boats need to carry deck boxes. Deck boxes are computer which can identify where gear is set and areas to be avoided. This is currently expensive and requires a shift in fishing practices.
Challenge: Computer Language Barriers
Different systems use different acoustic releases which essentially speak different languages. This would make it difficult for both fishers and enforcement agencies to locate gear.
A common language or computer interpreter needs to be developed so that fishers and managers can see where gear is, no matter which system is being used. This system could/should be developed to allow anonymity, so a fisher can see other traps but won’t know who they belong to, and can only release their own gear.
These systems are in development and largely custom-made, right now they are mostly cost-prohibitive to individual fishers. As fisheries operate in different areas, water depths, temperatures and bottom types, different versions of on-demand gear will be required.
Funding is needed to help test appropriate gear modifications for specific fisheries and support purchasing new gear. Fishers need to test different types of on-demand systems to determine which system works best for their particular fishery.
How is WDC helping?
WDC is part of the Ropeless Consortium, which provides a platform for fishers, engineers, scientists, and conservationists to work together toward a working on-demand fishing gear future.
WDC and its conservation partners are advocating for the passage of the SAVE Right Whales Act. This is a bipartisan bill which will provide $5 million dollars a year for 10 years to a grant program specifically aimed at creating new technologies to reduce accidental entanglements and ship strikes to endangered North Atlantic right whales. The grant program encourages collaborative projects between members of impacted industries, scientists, non-profits, states and federal agencies to work together toward solutions.