Protecting Ocean Wildlife

Gear Innovation

Transitioning to on-demand gear can ensure a sustainable future for lobster and crab fisheries and protect whales.

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 on-demand gear trials allows fishers to continue to earn a living amid changing regulations for static rope gear.

Lobsterman bringing in catch in Maine

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The adoption of 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 on-demand 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 on-demand gear to be donated to the NOAA Gear Library and the CanFISH Gear Lending Program, which lend on-demand gear to fishers for free, in exchange for the fishers collecting data on their use. They can also express an interest in purchasing product caught with on-demand gear within their supply chains.
  • Suppliers and producers can get involved in trials of on-demand fishing gear and existing projects.

Be part of the solution

Learn more about how you can support or participate in piloting on-demand gear.

On-demand gear works

In 2022, on-demand 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 on-demand gear one step closer to widespread commercial use and removing static lines from the water, reducing risks to whales and other marine wildlife.

  • Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery improvement project

    This project has pioneered on-demand fishing systems since 2020. In 2022, 10 participating fishers deployed more than 1,000 fully on-demand 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.
  • Jonah Crab Gear Innovation Project

    Innovative fishers in Massachusetts are piloting the use of on-demand gear technologies in the Jonah crab fishery and providing their expertise to adapt the gear to operate efficiently in challenging ocean conditions.
  • South Atlantic black sea bass fishers use on-demand gear to prevent fishery closures

    South Atlantic pot fishers in the artisanal black sea bass fishery in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida are using on-demand 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.
  • Implementing Strategies to Minimize Whale Entanglements in Lobster Fisheries

    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.

Gear libraries make gear available for piloting

In both the US and Canada, governments are partnering with the private sector to loan on-demand gear to fishers for trialing in pilot projects:

NOAA’s Northeast Fishery Science Center Gear Lending Library has been loaning on-demand 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 on-demand trawls (an on-demand 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 on-demand systems.

The CanFish Gear Lending Program, managed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation, began lending on-demand 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 on-demand 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 on-demand system malfunctioned.  In 2022, fishers landed more than 370,000 lbs of snow crab using gear from the lending program. 


Be part of the solution

Learn more about how you can support or participate in piloting on-demnand gear.