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.

As pressure mounts, more Maine lobstermen are quietly trying ‘ropeless’ gear

Ethan Genter, Bangor Daily News 29 September 2022

Organizations that have been testing experimental fishing gear designed to protect whales are seeing growing interest from Maine fishermen after recent setbacks have pushed the state’s lobster industry on its heels.

A handful of groups have been testing new “ropeless” and “on-demand” fishing gear throughout New England, but only a small number of Maine lobstermen have been quietly trying the technology out for more than a year.

Now more Mainers, worried for the lobster fishery’s future, are reconsidering the technology after a federal court rejected an industry challenge of new fishing regulations earlier this month and a sustainability watchdog advised people to avoid eating lobster due to the fishery’s risk ton the endangered right whale.

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which has been lending out ropeless fishing gear to fishermen throughout the region, says it has heard from more Maine lobstermen interested in trials recently. Meanwhile, one of the state’s major ports is now pushing for a more robust testing program.

“We have had several more requests from Maine fishermen and others to test on-demand gear after the latest court rulings and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s red listing,” said Henry Milliken, a research biologist that has been leading the science center’s tests.

Ropeless fishing involves traps that can be called to the surface with a press of a button. The two main types include special traps that either release a rope and buoy that can be hauled in by a lobstermen, or use an inflatable bag to raise trawls up. The technology is being proposed to cut down on the number of fishing lines in the water that are a potential threat to whales.

There has been a stigma attached to testing ropeless gear in Maine though. Many lobstermen claim they’ve been unjustly blamed for the downturn of whales, and any testing is a tacit acknowledgment of guilt. Groups that lead testing often decline to say who they are working with for fear of retribution.

“There are some fishermen who are working with us but because of the politics, I’d like to keep their names out of it,” Milliken said.

While many lobstermen have come out vehemently against the ropeless fishing technology in the past, Milliken said some fishermen in Maine are now deciding they should give the equipment a try as it’s increasingly being brought up as a solution by federal regulators.

“We’ve got all sorts of people who are now realizing that ropeless is a tool to help them access these closed areas,” he said.

Right now, the science center has about 170 different pieces of ropeless gear in its library and several other organizations are also testing on a small scale. For Stonington, that’s not enough.

Town leaders in the state’s largest lobster port sent a letter to Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation last week urging for help to ramp up ropeless testing and funding programs.

The town has been worried that a downturn in the industry could bring the death knell for the community as a whole. If ropeless is the future of the fishery, Stonington wants to get a feel for it.

“For the continued economic viability of our towns, shoreside support businesses, wharves, processors, and the fishermen themselves, the lobster industry must strike a delicate balance,” Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings wrote in the Sept. 20 letter. “It must simultaneously choose to embrace and adapt to a changing fishery, while continuing to advocate for itself in court.”

The town’s Select Board, which has multiple members who work in the lobster industry, called for the creation of a federally funded gear transition voucher program to allow federal lobster license holders to buy ropeless gear. It also urged for a blanket permission to use ropeless gear in federal waters and further support for the science center’s ongoing testing efforts.

“A quantum leap into ropeless gear offshore could help alleviate this near yearly cycle of intense gear modifications and purchases of stop-gap solutions that never really seem to fully satisfy the environmentalists,” Billings wrote.

There are still many kinks that need to be worked out with ropeless gear though. Without traditional marker buoys, one of the largest is the creation of a GPS-like system that shows where fishermen’s traps are laid on the seafloor. The entire fleet would need to know where surrounding fishermen’s traps are in order to avoid laying traps on top of one another. Non-lobster fishermen such as scallop draggers, would also need to know so they don’t get the traps caught in their nets.

The price, which according to Milliken runs on average costs about $4,000 for a system, is also a major hurdle. Boats would need several of these systems and Stonington estimated it would cost about $11 million to outfit the island’s offshore fleet.

And while some fishermen are looking to test now that they are backed into a regulatory corner, many are still vehemently against ropeless.

In a meeting with federal regulators Tuesday to discuss a new round of regulations, more than 400 fishermen from across the coast gave input on ways to cut the risk to whales. Several said that ropeless was pointless.

“Ropeless gear will never work,” said Jack Thibodeau, a 20-year-old lobsterman from Cumberland who was worred for his future in the fishery. “There’s no way to tell where anybody else sets the gear and what happens when a trap gets turned upside down in a storm or on their sides? The buoy could easily fail to release and as such that expensive trap would be lost.”

@2022 Bangor Publishing Company

Rare scenes of shark feeding, cold water coral in Georgia’s new Hope Spot marine sanctuary

By David Pendered for Saporta Report

October 22, 2019

A video tour posted by marine scientists provides a close-up look at life forms in the deep waters of Georgia’s newly named Hope Spot marine conservation area. Videos give first-ever glimpses of cold water corals on a sea bottom once thought to be barren sediment, and a soup-to-nuts view of sharks devouring a huge billfish – which a scientist observed was fairly graphic.

Dog sharks circle the carcass of a dead fish before they begin devouring it. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

“I think we’ve lost our PG rating,” said one of two scientists who controlled the camera on the remotely operated vehicle that explored the Blake Plateau in June and July.

The scientific exploration is unrelated to the Hope Spot designation of an area dedicated this month by Mission Blue and its founder, acclaimed oceanographer Sylvia Earle. The new marine sanctuary stretches from the coast all the way to international waters.

But the research trip by NOAA and its partners does provide views of an area beyond the reach of many who will be asked to help provide it with further environmental protections. The Hope Spot designation is viewed as the starting point for future preservation efforts that may eventually carry legal protections.

NOAA and its partners just happened to have conducted a research expedition in June and July in the deepwater areas off Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. NOAA observed the waters are some of the least explored areas along the U.S. East Coast.

Following is a narration of action the ROV captured in the Hope Spot that speaks to the reason environmentalists worked to have the marine sanctuary recognized by Mission Blue.

The video, Shark Feeding @ Blake Plateau, runs for nearly 8 minutes. Two female scientists handle the narration and two men, speaking in the background, can be heard directing the camera shots of sharks eating a fish thought to be a swordfish or a billfish:Hope Spot, shark feeding, 2

Dog sharks crowd to eat a freshly dead swordfish or billfish that died and sank to the sea bottom off Georgia’s coast. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

  • First scientist: “We’ve just happened to find this really rare sight of being able to see these sharks consuming this already dead what looks like swordfish.
  • “This is really seeing this whole cycle of carbon transfer in action, which I don’t think we’ve seen before. I definitely have not.”
  • Second scientist: “Not live. I’ve seen the Blue Planet video of it, but that was a staged thing and this is not at all. We’re getting close to the end of our dive, and to be able to observe these animals in their natural habitat, feeding, is pretty remarkable.
  • “This is great opportunity. You can kind of see the pecking order. Right now the dog sharks are tearing this swordfish apart, but we’re getting some of the other animals lurking around. We’re getting some of the eels that are waiting their turn, basically.”
  • First scientist: “We’re watching how quickly they are biting in and ripping tissue off this freshly dead swordfish. This is just lucky that we were able to find it, while there was still tissue to be eaten and consumed. Likely, in not long a time, this will be just skeleton [and] smaller organism will take every tiny bit of carbon that’s left on that skeleton and put it back in the food chain.”

This is when a male voice observed on the PG rating.Hope Spot, crab

A crab walks away with a piece of dead fish, possibly from the jaw or mouth, as dog sharks continue to devour the creature. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

The process to gain the Hope Spot recognition for these offshore waters has taken most of the year. The effort was led by three women who work to protect Georgia’s coastal areas:

  • Paulita Bennett-Martin, Georgia Campaign Organizer for Oceana;
  • Angela Costrini Hariche, CEO of Catapult Design;
  • Simona Perry, consultant on issues including the cultural and political consequences of environmental injustice.

The international Hope Spot designation was announced Oct. 10 at a celebration at the Georgia Aquarium. Earle’s organization, Mission Blue, created the recognition to focus public attention on protecting areas of the world’s oceans that are home to special marine ecologies or are socially significant.

Earle’s statement upon winning the 2009 TED Prize appears to support the NOAA research project that revealed unknown aspects of Georgia’s offshore waters:

  • “I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films, the web, expeditions, new submarines, a campaign! – to ignite public support for a network of global marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.”

Hope Spot, urchin

A sea urchin (orange, lower left side) rests atop a cold water coral on Blake Plateau, off Georgia’s coast. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

The narration by the marine scientists of the cold water coral reveals that no one had expected to find such living creatures on Georgia’s Blake Plateau.

Following are snippets of the narration of the segment titled, Coral Knoll @ Blake Plateau Knolls:

  • First scientist: “This is really interesting because previous to the Okeanos [research vessel] coming out here and mapping more of the flat part of Blake Plateau, this was kind of originally thought to be soft sediment. That’s part of what the Blake Plateau is and what’s been mapped.
  • “But these mound features that were just mapped last year really do shed light on how prolific these cold water coral communities are growing out here, farther east on the Blake Plateau.
  • Second scientist: “This is fabulous. This is so much more than I expected to see.”

Hope Spot, black sponge

A black sponge is surrounded by cold water coral on Blake Plateau, off Georgia’s coast. Credit: NOAA, Okeanos Explorer via YouTube

The Hope Spot is shaded in purple on this map of Georgia’s Continental Shelf and Blake Plateau. Credit: Paulita Bennett-Martin, Angela Hariche, Simona Perry

The homes of various species of concerns are denoted by color: Blue dotted outline, Atlantic right whale. Hashed line – Atlantic sharpnose shark, infant; brown – Atlantic sharpnose shark, juvenile; green – Atlantic sharpnose shark, adult. Teal – loggerhead sea turtle. Yellow border and shading – Bigeye thresher shark. Credit: Paulita Bennett-Martin, Angela Hariche, Simona PerryHope Spot, Benthic Habitats of Importance.

Places deep in the water where creatures call home include the following, denoted by color: Black outline – rocky reef, ledges, banks; Red-yellow heat map of density – deep sea corals; yellow – artifical reefs. Credit: Paulita Bennett-Martin, Angela Hariche, Simona Perry

Georgia earns prestigious Hope Spot designation

Posted By Jim Morekis on Fri, Oct 11, 2019 at 11:06 AM

Coastal ocean advocates on Friday announced the designation of Georgia’s offshore waters as an international Hope Spot.

The Hope Spot is a project of Mission Blue, led by oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and means that our waters are important to our ecosystem and should be protected.
Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA
The push for the designation was led by Paulita Bennett-Martin, Georgia Campaign Organizer for Oceana; Angela Hariche, CEO of Catapult Design; and ocean advocate Dr. Simona Perry.

Partners include the Caretta Research Project, Grays Reef National Marine Sanctuary, and the Georgia Conservancy.

The Hope Spot is comprised of Georgia’s continental shelf and the Blake Plateau, which Hariche explains covers 16,865 square miles.

The U.N. says that there are 8,878 pieces of plastic litter can be found on every square mile of the ocean.

“There are 136,235,470 pieces of plastic litter in our Hope Spot, all of which comes from land activity,” says Hariche.

Minimizing the pollution of our offshore waters is just one priority. Perry says that the Hope Spot plan has four specific goals: create an official representation site linking all the marine habitats; support and raise awareness regarding sustainable fisheries; prevent and reduce marine and nutrient pollution; and reduce adverse effects to the North Atlantic right whale and take action for their recovery.

“This is a clarion call to the rest of Georgia to start taking action for our oceans,” says Perry.

For more information, visit mission-blue.org.