Ropeless lobster trap creators aim to save money, whales

Ashored Innovations, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, has joined the parade of companies focused on improving lobster fishing.

But Ashored isn’t looking to build a better lobster trap. Driven by new regulations to eliminate the entanglement threat to the North Atlantic right whale, Ashored is focused on developing a reliable, submersible buoy that goes down with the lobster trawl, is geo-trackable, and retrieved via acoustic release technology.

“We’re not reinventing the lobster trap. It’s the buoys we are redesigning,” CEO Aaron Stevenson told SeafoodSource. 

After meetings with lobstermen, Stevenson and his partners realized replacing the current-style lobster trap “was going to be a losing battle against fishermen because the cost to replace them would be astronomical.”

“We initially had that notion, but shifted pretty quick to a smart buoy concept,” he said.

Stevenson said a major concern of fishermen about this new, non-visible technology involved not knowing where another fisherman’s traps and lines were and which direction they were laid. Fishermen didn’t want to lay their traps and lines on top of others – or have others on top of theirs.

Ross Arsenault, Ashored’s COO, said they are working to have “the ability to recognize that someone else’s buoys are there, but not recall them. You will only recall your own by using a proprietary signal or a security code.” 

“[While] acoustic release technology has existed for a long while, we’re working to develop a modified one and have a few other release mechanisms as our active retrieval release,” Arsenault said. “But the acoustic element is the standard at the moment and we are experimenting with ways to adapt away from that to perhaps find cost savings for the fishermen.”

Theirs isn’t a one-buoy-fits-all solution. In recognition of the various types and depths of waters that lobstermen fish in, Ashored is developing four prototype buoys. 

“The first place we started in the discovery process in September was understanding how fishing differed in each of the major bodies of water around Atlantic Canada,” Stevenson said. “What are the depth differences, even the boat design between what’s in the Northumberland Strait vs Yarmouth. And when we talk with fishermen in the Bay of Fundy, they’re asking how are we going to deal with the movement of water? What kind of drag is going to act against the buoy or rope and how can we minimize that? These are all different pieces we’re looking at.”

Ashored’s current testing is in tanks and the harbor in Halifax, with a deepwater pilot project scheduled for the fall. That’s helping them understand how rope is going to behave in different situation and interact with different technologies.

“Every time we meet with our engineering team we throw a pair of big rubber gloves that fishermen wear on the table as a reminder that no matter what we build or how it’s configured, they [the fishermen] have to be able to re-set and re-deploy it with frozen fingers in 20-foot seas with those gloves on,” Stevenson said. “That’s the environment it’s going to be used in and that’s the complexity you’re designing around.”

The company plans to be in the market in March or April 2019, and hasn’t set a unit price yet. Stevenson said he hopes lobstermen see the real value of the company’s product comes from trap-loss prevention.

“Trap loss is where this whole idea started. So being able to minimize that is a cost savings,” he said. “We’re also looking at future growth into other pieces that could help increase efficiencies for the fishing process.”

Stevenson estimates each trap is worth CAD 80 to 150 (USD 61.51 to 115.33, EUR 53.22 to 99.79), but that the loss of a licensing tag can cost up to CAD 1,500 to 2,000 (USD 1,153 to 1,538, EUR 998 to 1,330) during the peak of the season, in the time it takes to replace the tag.

“And if the loss is in a zone facing closure, our estimates, based on the math available to us and from fishermen, would run in the CAD 5,000 to 60,000 [USD 3,844 to 46,100, EUR 3,326 to 37,917] range a day in costs,” he said. “It gets insanely expensive very quickly.”

New, higher-tech “breakable” rope may be Ashored Innovation’s main competition. But Arsenault said even with breakable rope, traps only have two breakaway points – and both options, when used, leave a significant amount of rope in the water, most of which becomes ghost gear. 

“We’re looking at it from the ecological perspective, and the socio-economic aspects for fishermen,” Arsenault said. “We don’t see the need to sacrifice one to save the other. We’re really trying to find that sweet spot where we can help both sides. And looking at a broader area, the concern is with the right whales at the moment, but minke whales have been a big issue this year as well as beluga endangerment, then sea turtles and porpoises. It’s an issue that is much broader than just the right whales and Atlantic Canada, so we have our eyes set to see what other ways this can be used for other species.”


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