Time tension line-cutter could offer lobstermen a whale entanglement solution

A Maine lobsterman and machinist believes he could have the solution to North Atlantic right whale entanglement issues in the state’s lobster fishery. 

Ben Brickett of Blue Water Concepts presented – or more accurately re-presented – his idea for a “Time Tension Line-Cutter" at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum on 1 March. The technology, which he invented over a decade ago, provides a solution for whale entanglements that doesn’t compromise rope strength or require any electronics. 

“I got started in this in 2003. A good friend of mine who works on an offshore lobster boat came by and was very concerned with having to put weaker lines on his gear,” Brickett said. The friend in question was fishing in deep water, with hauling tensions that can approach 10,000 pounds on large lobster trawls. “They wanted to know if we could put in some kind of timed weak link.”

Currently, the lobster industry in the Northeast U.S. is facing pressure after a number of entanglement-related deaths of North Atlantic right whales – an endangered species with just over 400 individuals left – occurred in 2018. Both NOAA fisheries and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council have been investigating methods to prevent potential entanglements by the lobster industry. 

Among the solutions that have been proposed are inventions like ropeless lobster traps, “on-call buoys” that keep buoys low in the water until they receive a signal, or weak-link ropes that allow whales to break free on their own. Regulators are already working on keeping rope out of the water altogether, either through regional closures or reducing the number of traps allowed to fishermen. 

Brickett’s solution, however, doesn’t require any electronics, and it also doesn’t compromise the strength of the rope in any way. During a presentation, he reviewed extensive testing he did a decade ago to show that even a 10,000-pound hauling tension can be used with some of his devices.  

“We can design these so that you have absolutely full working strength on your line, whatever rope you’re using, for five to say 30 minutes,” he said. “No maintenance, no batteries, no electronics.”

The device is fairly simple, Brickett said. A hydraulic piston inside the device – Brickett likened it to the cylinder on a screen door – can be adjusted to move only under a certain amount of tension, from 500 to 10,000 pounds, depending on the size. Under normal use, the rope used will only be under tension for short amounts of time as it is hauled onto the boat. In those instances, the rope will function as normal, with the same tensile strength as it would without the device. 

However, the hydraulic piston inside the device is attached to a timing system. When set, the device will sense when the gear is under tension for a long period of time, anywhere from five to 30 minutes.

“That was the key to it, the timing, the regulator,” said Brickett. 

If the rope is consistently under tension for longer than it would be under normal use, the time tension line-cutter will then immediately sever the line with a tungsten blade. That way any whale caught in the device that is swimming and adding tension to the rope will eventually trigger the device, freeing the whale. The line-cutter is also durable – it survived an entire winter in the water on the Georges Banks in Maine. 

“These things will last a long long time,” Brickett said. 

Using his own vessel, the Maggie B, Brickett conducted a series of tests with the device that showed he could consistently have a clean severance of the line after a set amount of time under tension, even with repeated uses of the same device. He even created a concrete replica of a right whale fin to see if the device would behave has expected, and help prevent long-term entanglements of the whales. 

At the time, the device wasn’t as needed, and Brickett shelved the project more than a decade ago. However, as the industry’s concerns over potential regulations – or closures – mount, he’s decided to investigate whether the device has a place in the industry's search for a solution to the right whale entanglement issue. 

The device isn’t perfect, of course. It does add some extra cost, and it does slow down the hauling process a small amount. The newest prototypes have solved some issues with hauling the gear on-board, and Brickett said he’s planning to refine things further. 

Still, it could be a relatively low-cost solution that allows lobstermen to avoid compromising line strength while still having a device that can prevent long-term entanglements of right whales. 

“I’d like to get a half-dozen of these or so out to Maine fishermen,” Brickett said. “We want to refine this thing so that maybe in six months from now, we have something that looks good.”

Photo courtesy of Ben Brickett


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