Lobster trap innovation could prevent whale entanglements

Published on
January 4, 2017

Two engineers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have invented a lobster trap that could help prevent whale entanglements and potentially allow the reopening of restricted waters to lobster fishing.

The “on-call buoy,” which floats near the ocean floor until it is activated by a timer or acoustic signal, keeps the long vertical lines used in lobster fishing out of the way of migrating whales, according to an article in Oceanus magazine.

“Our system is to try to store the vertical line on the seafloor – keeping the lines out of the way of large swimming animals – until the fishing vessel crew releases it and is on site and ready to haul it in,” said WHOI engineer Jim Partan, who created the “on-call buoy” with fellow WHOI engineer Keenan Ball.

The invention could prevent whales entangling in fishing lines – a problem that causes injury and death to many endangered right whales and humpbacks off the coast of New England and Eastern Canada. According to studies by the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies cited by the article, 83 percent of North Atlantic right whales and about 50 percent of humpbacks between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia bear the lasting marks of wounds caused by ropes or nets.

Ropes picked up by whales often for months, chafing and cutting the whales and forcing them to drag heavy gear around for weeks or months, according to the article.

Ball estimates there are as many as 20,000 vertical lines in offshore areas off New England and Canada, and he and Partan said that their invention could also be a boon to fishermen, who won’t have to suffer the loss of gear to entanglements. The buoys might also allow the opening of some areas that have been seasonally closed to fishing due to the presence of whales.

“That’s a huge loss of revenue to fishermen,” Ball told Oceanus. “So if there’s a system that may allow them to fish in these otherwise-closed off waters, that would be beneficial to the local community, as well as being able to protect the whales.”

Ball and Partan have filed for a patent for their invention and will soon be putting the buoys to trial.

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