Future of right whale safe fishing gear could be in Southern waters

Wes Wolfe, Florida Politics 20 September 2022

The ropeless gear effort is part of NOAA’s North Atlantic Right Whale Road to Recovery.

Making an educated guess about what actions will work best in wildlife management involves statistical modeling, and for North Atlantic right whales, addressing risk and risk reduction. Policy changes aren’t easy and tend to take a lot of work — these models help justify those paths and that work.

Getting heavy ropes out of the water column in Atlantic Coast saltwater fisheries is key to averting the extinction in our lifetimes of the North Atlantic right whale. Northeastern and Canadian lobstering and crabbing operations are deeply invested in heavy traps and the ropes used to access them, so most of the discussions about ropeless gear technology have a decidedly New England accent attached.

However, red snapper hasn’t completely chased out pot fishing for black sea bass in South Atlantic waters, so fishers in this part of the world — albeit using lighter lines — are also in the conversation.

“My suggestion is, a lot of people really haven’t dealt with this ropeless gear, and luckily I was able to work with it in the beginning, and I’ve seen a little bit of it — was pretty impressed,” said Scott Buff, owner of Sea Peddler Seafood in North Carolina. “So, if this ropeless gear could be implemented in these areas that are our biggest risk, what would that actually do to reduction?”

Buff made his remarks at the first of three meetings over two weeks for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a task force leading the effort to save humpbacks and North Atlantic right whales from extinction.

The black sea bass pot fishery is an important offseason fishery, but that offseason overlaps with when right whales arrive each year to calve off the coasts of Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.

The hope is that on-demand, ropeless fishing gear would replace the kind of gear that now results in heavy rope extended through the water column, which entangles, maims and kills right whales as they swim through fishing grounds further north.

With ropeless gear, a pot sits on the ocean floor, with a coiled rope and a buoy wirelessly linked to the fisher’s device on the boat. The fisher presses a button, the signal reaches the pot, the rope unspools and the buoy takes it up to the surface for extraction in the normal manner.

Such rigs also use buoyant bags and rope spools, but the variations are all meant to accomplish the same thing: allowing fishers to continue their work without contributing to the extinction of one of the world’s largest marine mammals.

The ropeless gear effort is part of NOAA’s North Atlantic Right Whale Road to Recovery, the agency’s comprehensive plan to save the species.

Buff’s participation involved working gear on the water as through an exemption to test out the new technology. Initial indications appear positive.

“For fisheries management to determine if these devices could be relied upon in an area currently closed to pot fishing when (North Atlantic right whale) mothers and calves are present, a detailed performance analysis is required that examines the refinement and successful use of (subsea buoy retrieval systems) in this pot fishery,” Kim Sawicki, President of Sustainable Seas Technology, wrote in her application for a permit extension.

“Our first fisher-funded pilot project conducted under a (National Marine Fisheries Service) Exempted Fishing Permit showed the eight types of ropeless gear we tested to be 100% reliable when properly trained, experienced researchers and fishermen were operating the devices.”

NOAA continues to seek public input on the “Ropeless Roadmap” — people can comment online at is.gd/ropelessroadmap.

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