A lobsterman tosses a buoy onto his boat before heading out to set traps for the upcoming summer season, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Organizations that have been testing experimental fishing gear designed to protect whales are seeing growing interest from Maine fishermen after recent setbacks have pushed the state’s lobster industry on its heels

A handful of groups have been testing new “ropeless” and “on-demand” fishing gear throughout New England, but only a small number of Maine lobstermen have been quietly trying the technology out for more than a year.

Now more Mainers, worried for the lobster fishery’s future, are reconsidering the technology after a federal court rejected an industry challenge of new fishing regulations earlier this month and a sustainability watchdog advised people to avoid eating lobster due to the fishery’s risk to the endangered right whale.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which has been lending out ropeless fishing gear to fishermen throughout the region, says it has heard from more Maine lobstermen interested in trials recently. Meanwhile, one of the state’s major ports is now pushing for a more robust testing program.

“We have had several more requests from Maine fishermen and others to test on-demand gear after the latest court rulings and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s red listing,” said Henry Milliken, a research biologist that has been leading the science center’s tests.

Ropeless fishing involves traps that can be called to the surface with a press of a button. The two main types include special traps that either release a rope and buoy that can be hauled in by a lobstermen, or use an inflatable bag to raise trawls up. The technology is being proposed to cut down on the number of fishing lines in the water that are a potential threat to whales.

There has been a stigma attached to testing ropeless gear in Maine though. Many lobstermen feel they’ve been unjustly blamed for the downturn of whales, and any testing is a tacit acknowledgement of guilt. Groups that lead testing often decline to say who they are working with for fear of retribution.

“There are some fishermen who are working with us but because of the politics, I’d like to keep their names out of it,” Milliken said.

While many lobstermen have come out vehemently against the ropeless fishing technology in the past, Milliken said some fishermen in Maine are now deciding they should give the equipment a try as it’s increasingly being brought up as a solution by federal regulators.

“We’ve got all sorts of people who are now realizing that ropeless is a tool to help them access these closed areas,” he said.

Right now, the science center has about 170 different pieces of ropeless gear in its library and several other organizations are also testing on a small-scale. For Stonington, that’s not enough.

Town leaders in the state’s largest lobster port sent a letter to Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation last week urging for help to ramp up ropeless testing and funding programs.

The town has been worried that a downturn in the industry could bring the death knell for the community as a whole. If ropeless is the future of the fishery, Stonington wants to get a feel for it.

“For the continued economic viability of our towns, shoreside support businesses, wharves, processors, and the fishermen themselves, the lobster industry must strike a delicate balance,” Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings wrote in the Sept. 20 letter. “It must simultaneously choose to embrace and adapt to a changing fishery, while continuing to advocate for itself in court.”

The town’s Select Board, which has multiple members who work in the lobster industry, called for the creation of a federally funded gear transition voucher program to allow federal lobster license holders to buy ropeless gear. It also urged for a blanket permission to use ropeless gear in federal waters and further support for the science center’s ongoing testing efforts.

“A quantum leap into ropeless gear offshore could help alleviate this near yearly cycle of intense gear modifications and purchases of stop-gap solutions that never really seem to fully satisfy the environmentalists,” Billings wrote.

There are still many kinks that need to be worked out with ropeless gear though. Without traditional marker buoys, one of the largest is the creation of a GPS-like system that shows where fishermen’s traps are laid on the seafloor. The entire fleet would need to know where surrounding fishermen’s traps are in order to avoid laying traps on top of one another. Non-lobster fishermen, such scallop draggers, would also need to know so they don’t get the traps caught in their nets.

The price, which according to Milliken runs on average costs about $4,000 for a system, is also a major hurdle. Boats would need several of these systems and Stonington estimated it would cost about $11 million to outfit the island’s offshore fleet.

And while some fishermen are looking to test now that they are backed into a regulatory corner, many are still vehemently against ropeless.

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In a meeting with federal regulators Tuesday to discuss a new round of regulations, more than 400 fishermen from across the coast gave input on ways to cut the risk to whales. Several said that ropeless was pointless.

“Ropeless gear will never work,” said Jack Thibodeau, a 20-year-old lobsterman from Cumberland who was worried for his future in the fishery. “There’s no way to tell where anybody else sets their gear and what happens when a trap gets turned upside down in a storm or on their sides? The buoy could easily fail to release and as such that expensive trap would be lost.”