SMELTS Lobster raft with 300 lb. airbag inflated. (Photo courtesy Zack Klyver)
SMELTS Lobster raft with 300 lb. airbag inflated. (Photo courtesy Zack Klyver)
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Motoring out of Bar Harbor recently, a small boat slowly navigated a field of colorful buoys before hitting the open water. It hooked around Bar Island, passed the Porcupines and slowed up on the leeward side of Ironbound, a mostly undeveloped private island. Had a person been standing on the rocky cliffs then, they would have seen the crew on the boat dump a lobster trap into the water and watch it sink, then motor off to a short distance away, from which the dozen people aboard watched the spot where the trap went down. Some time later, a bundle of floats would appear at the surface and the boat would circle back and snag it with a boat hook. By now the observer would have pulled out some binoculars to get a better view, and would see that the float was attached to the lid of the lobster trap, and that from the lid, a rope disappeared into the water, by which the rest of the trap was soon retrieved.

The object thrown overboard was not in fact a trap but a ropeless fishing system deployed in a demonstration for passengers on the boat, including a film crew, a reporter and three people who study or advocate for right whales.

Zack Klyver chartered the boat and arranged the demonstration. Through his consultancy, Blue Planet Strategy, he has been working as an intermediary between manufacturers, whale advocates and lobstermen, who find themselves on various sides of a regulatory survival equation as the federal government moves to protect endangered right whales.

In ropeless fishing, Klyver sees a potential win for everyone involved, but getting there may take time and a fair amount of persuasion.

Ropeless fishing is still in its infancy. Only a handful of companies make the gear, and as Maine law requires lobster traps to be marked with a buoy, it’s not even legal to use here yet.

A typical ropeless system consists of a container of some sort filled with rope — several companies use the same material as lobster traps so that lobstermen can repair them with materials they have on hand. The rope connects the bottom of the box to the lid with a long coil of rope between. The lid, which is fitted with floats or an airbag, is held to the box by a latch that can be released from a transponder that is either dangled overboard or built into the hull of the boat. In practice, the container of rope would be hooked to the end of a trawl of traps in place of the traditional line and buoy.

In Maine, lobstermen are understandably hesitant about replacing a simple rope and float with a novel and expensive contraption that deploys like an aquatic parachute and relies on electronics, wireless geolocation and battery power. But in Massachusetts several fishermen have been testing it for some time and have reported it to be successful. Those that Klyver has been in contact with in Maine have often been won over after they see it in action.

The key technology, it turns out, has been around for decades. Edgetech, the Massachusetts-based manufacturer of one of the models tested at Ironbound Island, has been building acoustic transponding releases for underwater research equipment for decades. Rob Morris of Edgetech, who was on the boat for the demonstration, said making a ropeless fishing system was a matter of reconfiguring their core product.

None of this has to do with the functionality of traditional floating buoys. Lobstermen know to keep their gear out of navigation channels, and in other places boaters work around it. The problem lies underwater with the vertical lines that connect the buoys on the surface to the traps on the seafloor.

There are about a million such lines off the East Coast and the vast majority of them are in waters off New England states. With some unknown frequency, a whale swims into a vertical line and gets tangled. Some percentage of those whales die. Others are injured and may, as a result, live shorter lives or not reproduce.

The lines snag humpbacks and minke whales, but the majority of the concern is over right whales, which have been on the Endangered Species list since 1970 and are lately showing signs of distress.

In 2017 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration documented 17 dead or stranded right whales. Previous to that, right whales appeared to be recovering. But since then, the population has been in steady decline and is now believed to have dropped below 400, with fewer than 100 reproductive females.

NOAA is finalizing new rules to reduce human-caused mortalities. In the short term, those rules include new markings on gear that identify it by state and adding weak points to vertical lines to allow them to break away. Final rules are expected in September.

Lobstermen say the data on what NOAA is calling an “ongoing unusual mortality event” doesn’t justify the new rules in Maine, because the majority of documented unusual whale deaths have occurred in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Additionally, those mortalities include aquatic roadkilling by cargo ships, known as “vessel strikes.”

The hard data would seem to confirm this. NOAA’s map of whale deaths since 2017 shows a cluster of 15 to the north of Prince Edward Island and another four scattered around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as compared with just two in the Gulf of Maine.

But whale experts say the hard numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Whales that get entangled in fishing gear often break free only to get snagged again later. Injuries from entanglements can leave whales susceptible to disease, or otherwise shorten their natural life.

In 2015, a female humpback, dubbed Spinnaker, washed ashore dead at Acadia National Park. She had previously been entangled in fishing gear four times, once in gill-net gear and three times in lobster gear.

Documented serious injuries remain in the single digits from year to year, but counting injuries, or counting anything whales, remains an imprecise science.

The New England Aquarium keeps the definitive database of right whales, which dates to 1980 and includes photos and drawings that show the body markings of each whale, for identification.

Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium, who was on the boat for the recent demonstration, said the staff reviews the database every year. If a whale was seen anytime in the previous six years, it is presumed to be alive.

The aquarium has documented about 120 individual right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence that have been returning from year to year. But that still leaves more than 200 right whales whose location is unknown, she said, including some that have been sighted off the coast of Massachusetts.

Climate change may be another factor in the Unusual Mortality Event, as warming waters in the Gulf of Maine push the whales’ food supply north into new territory and disrupt their natural travel patterns. Lobstermen have also been moving their gear as temperatures have changed, creating the possibility for new collisions.

Knowlton said females are calving less frequently, despite a good year of 18 babies in 2021 (in 2018 there were zero). NOAA has documented whales that are smaller than they should be for their age.

Maine lobstermen believe new regulations will add cost and complexity to their trade with little to no benefit to whales.

Whale advocates say that the number of living North Atlantic right whales is too small to leave to chance.

Russell Wray, an artist and member of the Maine North Atlantic Right Whale Coalition who attended the demonstration, described the challenge of protecting right whales as part of a larger puzzle that involves people.

“If we can’t be bothered to make the changes that are necessary, I think we’re in trouble,” he said. “We’re just another species.”

Klyver has seen both sides of it. He grew up in a fishing family in Eastport. “For a time, all I wanted to do was fish,” he said.

On a whale watch tour in college he fell in love with whales and later guided whale watch tours out of Bar Harbor, which he continued to do for 31 years.

“I saw a lot of whales,” he said, “not right whales, but other species tangled in Maine lobster fishing gear, anchored to the seafloor, that we stood by and helped rescue … It’s not esoteric for me. It’s very tangible and real.”

Klyver believes a lot of the resistance to ropeless is just unfamiliarity. And with respect to the cost, which can be upward of $2,000 per ropeless buoy replacement, Klyver said it’s likely the federal government would help lobstermen with the transition.

In the near term, he sees it as an opportunity — the rules are going to change, at which point lobstermen can be prepared or not. Among the rules being considered by NOAA is an October-to-January closure of a strip of coastal water about 40 miles offshore, stretching roughly from Phippsburg to Stonington. Lobstermen with ropeless gear would be able to fish there.

“This can’t be a win-lose proposition,” Klyver said. “We have to have lobster fishing, and we really need to save the whales. So what are ways that we can move forward that offer an opportunity for coexistence? And maybe this can be part of the answer to that.”