The population of North Atlantic right whales, which are found off of the east coasts of the U.S. and Canada, has fallen by 30% in just the past 10 years, with only an estimated 336 alive at the end of 2020. Due to this critical decline, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—the federal agency responsible for both protecting right whales and managing commercial fishing—began implementing new regulations in September 2021 aimed at protecting right whales from entanglement in fishing gear.
Specifically, the vertical lines that connect crab and lobster pots and traps on the seafloor to buoys at the surface have entangled and killed numerous whales. So NOAA’s new regulations included seasonal closures for lobster and crab fishing in certain areas off New England, which went into effect last fall. Massachusetts had started similar seasonal closures in its waters in 2015.
Ropeless gear gains traction to help endangered right whales
These closures are generating more interest in a potential solution: ropeless gear—also referred to as “on-demand” or “buoyless” gear—in which a single trap or string of traps are connected to a system outfitted with an inflatable bag or a coiled rope that can be summoned to the surface electronically. Fishermen can raise their traps as their vessels approach. This may significantly lower the risk of entanglement for whales and other marine wildlife by reducing how many ropes run between the seafloor and surface. NOAA’s new rules allow ropeless fishing in new and existing federal closures for fishermen who obtain permits to use the new gear.
Ropeless fishing technologies are still in early stages, bringing both challenges and opportunities for fishermen and regulatory agencies.
For fishermen to gain access to closed areas to test ropeless gear, state and federal managers must grant them special permission. Although multiple fishermen in the U.S. have used ropeless gear outside of closures, none have secured permits to do so in a U.S. closure. And fishermen interested in trying ropeless gear face headwinds from within their own industry, even though limited expansion of ropeless gear now could offer opportunities for all industry participants in the future.
Testing ropeless fishing systems, specifically where data can be collected within the controlled environment a closure provides, is essential to understanding and improving the technology, and learning if it is a reasonable approach to reducing whale entanglements.
Regulators and fishermen can help advance ropeless gear
Some fishermen have provided constructive insights from their own knowledge and experience with ropeless fishing—such as in a fall 2021 workshop co-hosted by Pew, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Such input is most valuable when it’s provided early in the development of policy and technology, and fishermen have a chance now to shape the gear they’ll be using in the future.
Beyond approving fishermen to test ropeless gear, U.S. and Canadian fishery managers should mandate open standards and protocols for marking the location of fishing gear. In traditional gear, a surface buoy marks where a rope connects to a pot or trap on the seafloor, but that won’t work for ropeless gear. Clear guidance from both governments would help streamline and accelerate the commercial development of effective and affordable ropeless systems.
NOAA has said it will release in May a “Roadmap to Ropeless,” a draft policy that would likely extend far beyond New England’s lobster and crab fisheries within the U.S., and could even influence standards around the world. In Canada, government funding is helping advance collaboration between engineers, scientists, fishermen, and regulators. For the past two years, the Canadian snow crab fishery on the East Coast has been using ropeless gear inside seasonal closed areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to reduce right whale entanglements, and use of the gear by snow crab fishermen is expected to rise this year.
Congress could help accelerate the development of on-demand gear by giving NOAA money specifically for that purpose. That then could prompt an increase in production, more use of and feedback on the gear, and, over time, refinements of the technology and lower prices.
Public polling last year showed strong support for a transition to ropeless gear, opening the potential for industry to market lobsters caught by the gear to restaurants and stores.
New England fishing area closure shows NOAA’s flexibility
Federal and state governments should lead the transition to this gear by streamlining permitting and improving how gear is marked to prevent conflicts with other fishermen. Governments, too, need a transition to management approaches that are adaptive and dynamic to account for current information on when and where fishing is occurring, and whether right whales are present. Pew was heartened to see NOAA’s March 1 announcement that it would take emergency action to close an area for the month of April to protect right whales exiting Cape Cod Bay to the north, which hopefully is a sign that the U.S. is prepared to be more nimble with management measures in response to science. Canada, too, has shown a willingness to adjust management measures when needed.
We believe the obstacles and risks that come with transitioning to ropeless fishing can be overcome with collaboration. If the stakeholders involved all share a goal of ensuring both the survival of right whales and a sustainable future for New England’s lobster fishery, a switch to ropeless fishing would be a positive starting place for finding solutions.
Katharine Deuel is a senior officer and Leah Baumwell is a senior associate for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ projects to conserve marine life in the United States and Canada.