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Maine Fishermen's Forum 2018

Lobstermen pack right whale meeting about possible gear changes

By Daniel Dunkle | Mar 02, 2018
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle Fishermen pack the Rockport Room at the Samoset Resort for a talk about the possibility of ropeless fishing to save right whales March 2.
Lobstermen hear about Right Whales
(Video by: Amber Abbotoni)

ROCKPORT — Lobstermen from all over the state packed the Rockport Room at the Samoset Resort to overflowing March 2 to hear about the potential for ropeless fishing and use of break-away lines to help save the endangered right whale.

The panel discussion at the annual Maine Fishermen's Forum brought fishermen together with several experts including scientist Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium and Mike Asaro of NOAA Fisheries.

Right whales are endangered and on the brink of extinction. They are down to about 450 animals worldwide. In 2017, only five new whales were born to the species, and 17 animals died. Scientists say the cause of their deaths is almost always human in origin, either ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear.

"We have years, not decades to solve this problem," Baumgartner said.

Knowlton said the increase in deaths of right whales is due in part to the fact that rope has become so much stronger over the years through technological improvements. She advocated using ropes with strength of no more than 1,700 pounds. One way to achieve this is to braid short lengths of weaker line, which she called "sleeves" because they are hollow, into the ropes, to be used at intervals of every 40 feet. A whale entangled in this gear could break out of it.

Knowlton said 85 percent of the right whale population has been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lives. Many have been entangled about four times. There is concern that the younger whales are particularly vulnerable, because they are less able to break out of the entanglements.

Baumgartner ended the session with a five-minute presentation on ropeless fishing, which would eliminate the use of end lines and buoys. He told the crowd of fishermen that those older than age 50 would think this sounded insane, but those younger than 25 might think it sounded normal. A fishermen in attendance hollered, "No, it doesn't!" Baumgartner noted the technology needed for a ropeless fishery is not available now.

"This is not going to happen next year. This is technology we need to develop," he said.

The idea is to deploy traps that are equipped with modems and technology that would allow them to either rise by use of an inflatable bag on the trap or a spool of line that floats to the surface from the bottom, playing out line as it ascends. Acoustic devises on the boats and traps would allow the fishermen to communicate with their traps and locate them, and would feed data to their cell phones. For example, if the current or other factors moved a trap, and another boat passed over it and picked up its signal, a text would be sent to the owner's cell phone providing the trap's location. This would work even when it was not the owner's vessel that passed over the trap.

Fishermen in attendance were skeptical that right whales were coming close to shore in Maine and noted at the meeting that most Maine fishermen have never even seen a right whale. They also questioned whether there was any hope for the animals genetically, anyway, given their small numbers and the possibility of inbreeding weakening the species. Knowlton acknowledged there were concerns among scientists about inbreeding, but said the population still had the ability reproduce without it.

It was noted at the meeting that there are more than 2.9 million traps in Maine waters, so it would only take visits from about five whales to our coastline to put the population in more danger from entanglements due to this fishery.

NOAA Fisheries is under pressure to do more to protect the whales due to the Endangered Species Act. The Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice have filed a federal lawsuit to push for more protective measures.

However, Asaro would not say when and how likely new and more restrictive regulations are to be put in place. He said the ropeless idea could be five to 20 years down the road. Regulators are holding meetings and conducting research to determine what needs to be done.

"There is no silver bullet right now," he said.

However, he said fishermen have a front-row seat at the table for these discussions, and they are participating in the process.

"We can protect whales and have fishing," he said.

Scientist Mark Baumgartner talks about the plight of right whales March 2 at the Samoset Resort. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Amy Knowlton of New England Aquarium fields questions March 2 at the Maine Fishermen's Forum. Also pictured is Mike Asaro of NOAA Fisheries. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
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Comments (1)
Posted by: Arnold A Kinney | Mar 06, 2018 06:07

The lobstering industry is in trouble, too. Families are struggling. I can only imagine what the cost per trap would be with this yet undeveloped "smart trap" proposed. I have yet to hear of a right whale being caught in trap rope, let alone dying from such.  I care deeply for the survival of ALL, humans and whales.


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