A lobster boat pulls away from a Portland wharf, headed for the harbor on Monday May 24, 2021. According to the latest national numbers, salmon has outpaced lobster for the highest-grossing, wild-caught domestic fishery.  Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

An application to test innovative fishing gear throughout New England could get some Maine lobstermen back into a nearly 1,000-mile swathe of offshore fishing grounds for the first time since the implementation of a seasonal closure last year.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is seeking a permit to work with fishermen to trial “ropeless” fishing gear in several parts of New England, including the 967-square mile closure area off the midcoast.

The lucrative fishing grounds were closed off last year for the first time as part of a slew of new regulations designed to protect the endangered right whale. From October through January — the heart of the offshore fishing season — lobstermen can only fish in the area with a permit and if they use ropeless technology, which is costly and unfamiliar.

But if the federal marine research program’s application is approved, a few fishermen may get to try loaned ropeless fishing gear during the next closure.

“This whole effort is to provide fishermen a tool so they can access those closed areas,” said Henry Milliken, a research fisheries biologist with the center.

Ropeless fishing is a still-developing method of lobstering that is designed to cut down on the chances of endangered right whales getting tangled up in vertical fishing lines.

Traditionally, lobstermen have a fishing line that connects a string of lobster traps to a buoy on the surface. Lobstermen mark where their traps are with the buoy and haul them up using the vertical line.

Ropeless fishing eliminates the vertical fishing lines that can be a major threat to whales. The two main types of ropeless fishing use either inflatable “lift bags” or stowed buoy lines that can be released on-demand to float the traps to the surface.

Neither type is being used on a wide scale. Ropeless gear also isn’t allowed in Maine without special permission. Many lobstermen remain skeptical of the technology. They are also adamant that they aren’t the cause of the right whales decline, making ropeless gear a solution to a non-existent problem.

Virginia Olsen is a leader in the Maine Lobstering Union, the group that sued over the closure, and fishes out of Stonington. She doesn’t know of many lobstermen who have warmed to the idea of using the on-demand ropeless systems but said there may be more interest in grappling, a hooking method currently used when a fishing line breaks.

The application encompasses grappling as well, which Milliken said is a low cost but more time-consuming prospect.

If granted by NOAA, the permit would allow the center to lend its library of the ropeless gear to 100 fishing vessels throughout New England. Each could use the gear on 10 fishing trawls. No more than 30 vessels could be tested in a closed area at any single time.

The center has done trials with Maine fishermen in the past and other groups have been testing them out with a handful of fishermen. But this is the first time there’s been an application to try it in the closed area. Milliken said this is a good chance to get feedback on the tech to make sure it works.

“The goal is to get this gear into the hands of fishermen so they can tell us and the engineers how it operates for them,” he said.

The application was posted in the federal registry on Wednesday and will be available for public comment for 15 days.