Slinky pots and ropeless gear become next angles for whale avoidance

With new regulations turning whale avoidance into a top priority in the Gulf of Maine and off California, the future for trap fisheries may look drastically different than the present.

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. state of California are looking to ropeless gear for lobster and crab fisheries as the long-term solution, but such systems are still in development. So-called pop-up or ropeless gear, instead of the traditional vertical lines connecting trap lines to buoys, are seen by some agencies and environmental groups as the long-term answer for avoiding accidents with whales and keeping fishermen working. But many fishermen see pop-up gear as too expensive and problematic. Some West Coast crabbers have been working to test and trial new designs, but political demands to implement ropeless gear inspire mistrust that they could be forced to use a not-ready-for-primetime technology, according to Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Environmental advocates pushed California state lawmakers for a timetable to mandate ropeless gear adoption, Conroy said.

‘“Hey California state legislature, NMFS isn’t doing anything, so we want you to reintroduce ropeless fishing gear,’” Conroy said of the maneuver that was ultimately defeated by a coalition that included commercial and recreational fishing groups. “That bill that was introduced last year did more to set back alternative gear-types than any other bill.”

Panelists at a panel at the recent Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. said fishermen want to work with gear developers and researchers in good faith, but are wary of top-down gear solutions.

“We hate to be given the shovel to dig our own grave with,” said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, whose members face daunting demands for gear changes to protect endangered northern right whales.

Maine fishermen have worked for years with regulators to reduce entanglement risks, and the last verified case involving Maine gear dates back more than 15 years to a case when the whale was successfully rescued, according to Porter. The mortalities that triggered the current crisis included deaths from entanglements in snow crab gear and ship strikes as more right whales began moving north into Canadian waters, he said.

In California, Dungeness crab fishermen in Zone 3 and Zone 4 are currently cooling their heels in port, awaiting an updated assessment of humpback whale movements and an all-clear from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to set gear, once the agency judges the danger of entanglements is lowered. In recent years, the usual November crab season opening has been delayed as whales congregate to feed before heading south for their breeding season.

As a mitigation measure, California Dungeness crabbers have worked to reduce whale risks from existing gear, like keeping excessive slack out of lines, while the humpback population grows.

“We’ve seen a significant increase, and we’ve seen a significant decrease in interaction. Things are moving in the right direction,” said Dick Ogg, captain of the fishing vessel Karen Jeanne and member of the California Dungeness Crab Gear Working Group. For developing comprehensive new gear solutions, Ogg said, “the objective would be to get the fishermen to be the majority of the designers and developers.”

Meanwhile, the so-called slinky pot appears on track to eliminate fishermen’s losses to whale depredation in the Pacific black cod fishery. Named for its resemblance to the spring-steel toy, the slinky pot is a lightweight, collapsible design that keeps whales from snacking on fishermen’s catches of black cod. Slinky pot suppliers’ display booths attracted much interest on the Pacific Marine Expo show floor.

Gear designer Alex Stubbs of Fish Tech estimated there are 20,000 traps currently in use. For high-risk, high-cost experimental gear, new development might be spurred by offering fishermen incentives for taking that risk, Stubbs said. One such approach could be allowing ropeless gear use during times of seasonal whale movements, when conventional vertical-line gear is not allowed in some areas.

But that solution raises the prospect of better-financed fishing operations exploiting such an incentive structure to take over traditional fishermen’s grounds, Porter said. In Maine, which has 4,000 lobster permit-holders each fishing more or less independently, that lack of a consolidated corporate presence is an integral part of the character of the fishery, Porter said.

Reporting by Kirk Moore

Photo courtesy of Kirk Moore/National Fisherman


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