BAR HARBOR — Federal officials are working on a road map for the implementation of ropeless fishing in the Atlantic Ocean after announcing a seasonal closure of a large swath of prime lobstering ground last week.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was expecting to have the guide for the developing technology available in May 2022.
The agency announced that it would be closing a 967-square-mile area largely off the Midcoast to lobstering between October and January, some of the most lucrative months for offshore lobstering. The move is part of an effort to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water in order to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Lobstermen, however, could continue to fish in the area if they used ropeless fishing equipment that doesn’t use the persistent vertical lines that traditional lobstering does.
“The primary goal behind having these restricted areas open to ropeless fishing is to test it so that we can figure out how it might be able to be implemented in the fishery in the future,” said Marisa Trego, an Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction team coordinator at NOAA. “This will help us deal with different issues like gear conflicts and figuring out how to locate here and have everybody on the same page.”
Traditionally, lobstermen have a buoy on the surface to mark the location of their traps on the ocean floor. The traps are connected to the buoy by a vertical line.
There are currently two main types of ropeless fishing. One is a trap-like cage that has a rope stowed inside. A lobsterman can trigger the release of the buoy, bringing the rope to the surface. The second type includes a lift bag in the trap. It blows up like a balloon on demand, bringing the trap along with it.
Neither are widely available and ropeless fishing currently isn’t allowed in Maine. Lobstermen are extremely skeptical of the technology, saying it likely wouldn’t work in a real-life setting and it would be prohibitively expensive. They have huge concerns about locating the gear, the potential safety hazards and the likelihood of gear conflicts.
Many say it just won’t work.
“There’s no such thing as ropeless fishing,” said Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Winter Harbor lobsterman and Republican state representative. “It’s a fantasy.”
NOAA officials said they know that the technology isn’t as mature as they’d like, but they are working with about 20 fishermen to test it out in federal waters.
“We understand it’s not available for implementation across the fishery yet, which is why we want to encourage testing of the gear to see if these are things that we can resolve before we would expect others to be fishing them across the fishery,” Trego said.
The technology so far has largely been tested in Massachusetts. Zack Klyver at Blue Planet Strategies said he now has found four lobstermen to test a hybrid system that is ropeless on one end in Maine federal waters.
“It’s going to take some time to figure out,” he said. “We need to do more testing, especially offshore.”
If the kinks are worked out, ropeless fishing could be more efficient than traditional lobstering, said Kylver. Lobstermen could save time by calling up the traps so they are on the surface when the vessel arrives.
“You’ve saved time,” he said. “You have your first trap right there waiting for you.”
Fewer ropes could mean fewer snarls with other lobstermen’s traps.
But lobstermen feel that ropeless fishing is a questionable solution to a problem that they’d argue isn’t even real. NOAA officials said the closure of the 967-acre area was due to the overlap of whale and rope density. Fishermen maintain that they have never seen whales around the fishing grounds.
Even still, if Maine lobstermen did want to give ropeless fishing a try, the window to do it in time for this season is extremely tight. The federal ropeless fishing guide won’t be available until next year and the new announcement of the closure came on Aug. 31, giving the industry a month to react.
Paul Anderson, the executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, has applied for the same permits that would be required for fishing in the seasonal closure and said they take a while to get approved.
“It’s just not enough time,’ said Ginny Olsen, a Stonington lobsterman. Fishing offshore also gets baked into a lobstermen’s business plan. They count on being able to fish at those times and have larger boats built to handle rougher conditions. Switching to somewhere else to meet the changes could be expensive and NOAA estimated that the first year alone could cost as much as $19 million to implement.
“That’s really devastating for coastal communities,” Olsen said.
In the new regulations, NOAA noted that the high cost of ropeless fishing would, for the foreseeable future, mean that lobstermen are likely going to have to depend on gear loans by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which has been testing out gear.
Anderson worried about how NOAA would handle who can get the permits, saying the process had the potential to be “clumsy.” The center will work to make sure that fishing along the coast could continue while protecting whales at the same time.
“We owe it to (fishermen) to help them figure out how they can still fish and be prosperous,” he said.