American lobster, Jonah crab, and snow crab are important fisheries for the United States and Canada, contributing significant economic value and generating large quantities of seafood for domestic and international consumption. In the state of Maine alone, the 2021 lobster catch totaled 108 million pounds, valued at $725 million – the highest on record.
The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW) faces deadly threats from both vessel strikes and entanglement in rope lines, which stem from crab and lobster traps and pots in areas that overlap with their habitat. Eighty-three percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from entanglements with fishing gear.
Because of this threat, fishing areas are increasingly being closed to traditional gear types. While this protects whales, fishers suffer when prevented from accessing the fishing grounds that provide their livelihoods. Participating in ropeless gear trials allows fishers to continue to earn a living amid changing regulations for static rope gear.
The adoption of ropeless, or on-demand, gear types that use traps but avoid static vertical lines in the water column can help eliminate this threat and allow fishing and whales to coexist.
There is still a long regulatory road ahead, and a variety of management tools and options will likely be explored and debated to address these fisheries’ impacts on whales. In the meantime, gear trials and pilot projects can contribute to getting lines out of the water in areas of high risk to whales, while capturing important feedback from fishers, whose expertise is needed for developing solutions and improving ropeless systems.
SFP encourages the market to support lobster and crab fisheries through these challenges by encouraging the development of solutions to minimize entanglement risk while fishing continues.
- Retailers and major buyers can purchase ropeless gear to be donated to the NOAA Gear Library and the CanFISH Gear Lending Program, which lend ropeless gear to fishers for free, in exchange for the fishers collecting data on their use. They can also express an interest in purchasing ropeless-caught gear within their supply chains.
- Suppliers and producers can get involved in trials of ropeless fishing gear and existing projects.
In 2022, ropeless gear was not just trialed, but successfully used to fish in both the US lobster and Canadian snow crab fisheries. Each of these pioneering programs is bringing ropeless gear one step closer to widespread commercial use and removing static lines from the water, reducing risks to whales and other marine wildlife.
This project has pioneered ropeless fishing systems since 2020. In 2022, 10 participating fishers deployed more than 1,000 fully ropeless crab pots in waters closed to fishing with buoy lines, with a retrieval rate of 96 percent and a total catch of more than 450,000 lbs of snow crab. The FIP was started in part with encouragement from US supermarket chain and longtime SFP partner Publix Super Markets, in response to the fishery’s loss of MSC certification due to interactions with North Atlantic right whales.
Innovative fishers in Massachusetts are piloting the use of ropless gear technologies in the Jonah crab fishery and providing their expertise to adapt the gear to operate efficiently in challenging ocean conditions.
South Atlantic pot fishers in the artisanal black sea bass fishery in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida are using ropeless gear during winter months, a time when the fishery has previously been closed to prevent entanglement of North Atlantic right whales that calve off the South Atlantic coast in winter
A fishery improvement project in the North American lobster fishery is using market influence to improve understanding of risk through spatial and temporal mapping, implementing third-party verified traceability, and advancing on-demand gear technology to promote lobster products with lower right whale entanglement risk.
In both the US and Canada, governments are partnering with the private sector to loan ropeless gear to fishers for trialing in pilot projects:
NOAA’s Northeast Fishery Science Center Gear Lending Library has been loaning ropeless systems to participating fishers for the last three years and has experienced a rapid expansion. In 2022, 25 participating fishers deployed more than 982 hybrid ropeless trawls (a ropeless system on one end, a traditional buoy line on the other) targeting American lobster, with a retrieval success rate of more than 91 percent. This “no problem” retrieval rate has increased every year. In addition, operation errors (improper setup/deployment) have decreased every year, proving that, with trialing experience, fishers can become very efficient at fishing with ropeless systems.
The CanFish Gear Lending Program, managed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation, began lending ropeless systems to participating fisheries in 2022 and has already had a large impact on the local fishery. In 2022, 10 participating fishers deployed about 500 ropeless traps in waters temporarily closed to fishing with buoy lines due to recent whale sightings. The retrieval success rate was more than 96 percent, with only one instance where the ropeless system malfunctioned. In 2022, fishers landed more than 370,000 lbs of snow crab using gear from the lending program.
Benefits of switching to ropeless gear
- Reduces gear loss
- Reduces ghost gear
- Avoids expensive time-area closures that can disrupt fishing
- Allows fishing to continue in areas where traditional gear cannot be used without endangering whales