Despite threats from fellow fishermen, lobster fishermen are lobbying the state to allow ropeless fishing in closed areas

If the state approves their proposal, which has received support from right whale scientists and environmental groups, it would be the first time commercial lobster fishing would be permitted without buoys in state waters.

“I did my best to get our guys back fishing,” said Michael Lane, 46, a lobster boater who fishes 800 traps in Cohasset. “I’ve seen so many things taken from us, over the years; it’s nice to finally have the chance to see something going in the right direction. This could be a win for the fishing community.

But when Lane’s group presented at a recent public hearing their proposal to fish with experimental ropeless gear – which would use remote-triggered inflatable balloons or other devices to surface traps – they were put to the test. pilloried by their fellow fishermen. Opponents compared them to thieves, with some suggesting they were traitors making it more likely that federal regulators will force the rest of the fleet to use the expensive technology.

The backlash, accompanied by vitriolic attacks on social media, led some members of the small group to give up.

Lane said he felt like a “black sheep”.

“It’s scary as hell to reinvent the buoy, and I understand their fears,” he said. “But I was offended by what they were saying. I thought we were doing a good thing for the industry, and they’re ready to pull out the gallows and hang me?

State officials said they are considering the proposal, which aims to allow five lobsters to use federally provided ropeless gear to fish up to 200 traps in south shore waters. which are closed for three months a year. lobster fishing.

To protect right whales, some areas along the coast, such as Cape Cod Bay, have since 2015 been closed to lobster fishing between February and May, when large numbers feed in those waters. As whale population declines have accelerated — scientists estimate their numbers have fallen by 30% over the past decade — federal officials have pressured the state to act. As a result, state officials last year extended a three-month ban on traditional lobster fishing to most of its coastal waters.

“I don’t expect to make a decision for a few weeks,” said Dan McKiernan, director of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries.

He declined to say if he was inclined to allow ropeless fishing. “I am still gathering information from the staff and taking into account the many comments,” he said.

After years of protesting the annual closures, Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association officials urged McKiernan to reject the pioneers’ proposal, arguing it could lead to “catastrophic” conflicts with other fisheries.

They noted that McKiernan had raised similar concerns. A year ago, in a memo, he expressed concern about the possibility of a scallop boat towing a dredge through a series of connected lobster traps that were not identified by surface buoys. “It can damage equipment, or worse, compromise crew safety,” he wrote. “If the scallop vessel is ‘hooked’ on the gear, it is at risk of capsizing.”

“Given that commercial fishing in the United States is already the deadliest job, why would any mobile gear want to be put at additional risk given the uncertainty and risk?” wrote Beth Casoni, executive director of the Lobstermen’s Association, in a letter to McKiernan, referring to dredgers and other fishermen who comb the seabed with dredges and nets.

She raised further concerns about the potential impact of ropeless fishing on the industry, which includes more than 700 lobster fishermen in Massachusetts whose catch was valued at nearly $80 million in 2020.

Despite previous arguments she has made against the need for closures to protect whales, Casoni insisted that fishing without ropes could put whales at greater risk during months when the waters would otherwise be closed. And that, she worried, could in turn lead to more sanctions against the lobster industry.

“The risk to the entire commercial lobster industry is too high to allow this project to take place during the months of closure…when there is no chance of right whale interaction. and fixed gear, whether it’s a locker/locker or a ship,” she wrote. “Adding more risk at a time when the commercial lobster industry is most vulnerable is inexcusable.”

But scientists who study right whales and conservation groups seeking to protect them not only support the proposal, but have helped them obtain the equipment and refine their efforts. They have long encouraged state and federal authorities to allow lobsters to experiment with ropeless gear, which they say could be the ultimate solution to long-term protection of whales — and other marine mammals — while maintaining a robust lobster fishing all year round.

While they acknowledge concerns about gear conflicts and potential risks to whales, including boats crossing the area to retrieve their catch, they say technology has come a long way in recent years and the risks for whales are minimal. They also note that there are ways to make the wireless gear digitally visible to different fisheries, as well as law enforcement officials, such as using GPS to display the gear’s location on mobile phone apps or chart plotter monitors that most anglers use.

Allowing pioneers to use the equipment in real-world conditions, they add, would provide invaluable insight into what works and what needs to work.

“Such experiments are crucial in determining the feasibility of buoyless commercial fishing and can only be carried out in the closed area when there is no chance of tangling buoyless gear with the traditional gear of other fishermen. “said Mark Baumgartner, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic. Institution.

Patrick Ramage, senior director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said his Yarmouth-based group supports the proposal because “we are looking for solutions”.

He described the risk to whales as “negligible” and said the most vocal critics are lobsters “least familiar with the gear and least affected by the state shutdown”.

“This is a lobster-led effort strongly supported by top right whale scientists, federal regulators, responsible conservation organizations, and technology companies in Massachusetts. Why would DMF say no? ” he said. “If we’re going to save New England’s right whales and lobsters, we can’t let understandable frustration stifle innovation, it must energize it.”

For the lobsters urging the state to approve their proposal, the stakes are high.

Many of them have gone years without income during the shutdowns, and the ability to fish with ropeless gear offers the prospect that this may finally be changing. It is also an insurance measure against the possibility that the federal government, to prevent the extinction of right whales, is required by law to prohibit the use of buoy lines.

Rob Martin, a lobster fisherman from Sandwich, and his partner, Lori Caron, have struggled to get through the closures to cover expenses, such as mortgage payments and college tuition.

For this reason, Martin has probably spent more time testing ropeless gear than any other angler in the area, while Caron has spent years working with various groups to allow lobsters to use gear in closed areas. .

When Caron, who is president of the pioneer group, heard the response from her fellow fishermen at the recent hearing, she called it “heartbreaking”.

“To call these lobster fishermen selfish is absurd,” she said.

“We know about ropeless work,” she added. “This is an opportunity to regain access to a closed area. For those trying to block this, I ask: if it’s not cordless, tell us what else? The truth is that we have no other choice.

David Abel can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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