Conservationists are seeking to cut the number of vertical fishing lines from lobster and other fisheries to protect right whales. But Maine lobstermen are skeptical of the still developing ropeless fishing technology that could allow the fishery to continue. Credit: File photo

The elimination of fishing lines that run from lobster traps on the Gulf of Maine’s seafloor to marker buoys on the water’s surface is increasingly being sought as a way to help save the estimated 336 endangered North Atlantic right whales left in the world. But Maine lobstermen are skeptical.

Lobster industry officials say that the technology currently isn’t commercially viable and questioned if it’s really necessary in Maine, where whale sightings are rare.

“I think some people are probably contemplating it and some people can’t ever imagine it ever working,” Patrice McCarron, the head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said.

McCarron emphasized that each fisherman is their own individual business and when it comes to testing out the gear, they have to make decisions based on what’s best for them.

Ropeless gear gets rid of the persistent vertical fishing line that can entangle whales and other species. Alternatives include gear that releases a buoy to the surface and others that fill a bag with air, floating the traps up to a waiting boat. 

This fall, the federal regulators implemented new rules that ban the use of traditional fishing gear in nearly 1,000 square miles of offshore fishing grounds off midcoast Maine from October through January. The rule was put in place, according to federal officials, because of the high density of fishing lines and whales in the area. It has withstood legal challenges and, with the U.S. Supreme Court recently declining to take the case up, may be here to stay.

A court ruling in Massachusetts could also forecast changes in the fishery. A judge there last month dismissed a whale activist’s lawsuit that called for the elimination of vertical fishing lines, but noted that she could see a scenario where the Bay State ceases to permit vertical lines in state waters.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned federal fishing regulators last week to require trap fisheries to convert to ropeless gear within the next five years. Since 2017, entanglements have been attributed to at least nine known whale deaths. 

“Crab and lobster fishers are still using 19th century technologies despite new alternatives that could eliminate entanglements in buoy lines,” said Kristen Monsell, the center’s oceans legal director. “But change isn’t going to happen on its own, so our petition seeks a deadline to convert to ropeless gear.”

Many lobstermen in Maine question whether right whales swim through the waters where they set their traps and say they aren’t to blame for their demise. In their minds, there’s no point of testing out a technology that replaces something that isn’t an issue. 

Lobstermen often point to the fact that there hasn’t been a documented whale entanglement attributed to Maine for nearly 20 years, while conservationists and scientists note that many entanglements are undocumented, their origins are hard to pinpoint and there are whales found in the Gulf of Maine. It’s estimated that about 85 percent of right whales bear scars that indicate they’ve been entangled at least once in their life. 

“I haven’t heard of any of our members running out to jump into ropeless technology,” said Virginia Olsen, a leader in the Maine Lobstering Union. “We’re looking at the technology, but it’s just not there.”

Other lobstermen say ropeless gear just isn’t ready to be used day-in, day-out and is too expensive.

Current testing in Maine largely uses a hybrid system, which still has a buoy and line on one end of the traps. The union has had one member test ropeless gear and Down East-based Blue Planet Strategies has about eight lobstermen and gillnet fishermen trying it up and down the Maine coast. 

Proponents of the technology say it could be a way for lobstermen to continue their trade while potentially providing time-saving efficiencies, such as being able to call up traps so they are already on the surface when a lobstermen pulls alongside them.  

The acoustic technology that calls up the traps with ropeless systems isn’t new, said Rob Morris, a product line sales engineer for EdgeTech – one of the several manufacturers of ropeless cages. It has been used in other applications for decades and is currently being employed in the Canadian crab pot fishery and is in tests with Maine lobstermen. From a development standpoint, Morris said his products were ready to go. 

“The only thing in the way now is getting quantities up,” he said. “And we’re only going to do that if we get more orders.”

When the offshore seasonal closure was first announced, Morris said EdgeTech was contacted by Stonington lobstermen but those discussions cooled off as legal battles continued.

Fishermen who want to be fully ropeless need to get a special license from the state Department of Marine Resources. A department spokesperson said he is not aware of anyone using fully ropeless gear and the federal officials said while there have been inquiries from Maine fishermen, none have applied to use the gear in the offshore seasonal closure area. A ropeless guide is expected from the federal government in May. 

McCarron said some lobstermen have expressed interest, but it is by no means on a wide scale and the association continues to question the ongoing regulations on the fishery imposed in support of the whales.

“I feel like the solution is a mismatch for the problem,” McCarron said.

One of the big concerns for the industry is being able to tell where gear is. Buoys mark where a lobsterman’s traps are, both for other lobstermen setting gear and other fishermen, such as draggers. All people fishing in an area would need to be able to tell where the ropeless gear is below the surface to make sure there are no conflicts. That could require some kind of standardization between the handful of ropeless gear manufacturers. 

“If we don’t solve the location problem, there’s going to be a real mess in the fishery,” said Paul Anderson, the executive director of Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. 

The center plans to test if there could be a way to use sonar to locate traps on the bottom through its Eastern Maine Skippers Program, a youth fishing program in nine Down East high schools. Anderson said the center is testing it out with the young fishermen because they might be the ones who inherit a changing fishery. The location issue is also on the DMR’s radar and the department is investing $50,000 to test submerged gear location technology next year.

Some lobstermen don’t mince words when the topic of ropeless fishing comes up.

Winter Harbor lobsterman and Republican state Representative Billy Bob Faulkingham said that ropeless gear “is science fiction at this point.” If requirements for ropeless were eventually imposed on Maine, Faulkingham believed that would be the end of the industry. 

“It’s not that we’re defiant against it,” he said. “We’re just realists about the technology.”