Over the last year we have been following two stories that interrelate. In 2017 the North Atlantic Right Whale, the world’s most endangered whale, suffered 17 deaths. For a population of no more than 450 that was a catastrophic loss.
Collisions with shipping accounted for a number of those fatalities, while entanglement in discarded fishing gear was the culprit in many of the other deaths. By some estimates, entanglements have accounted for nearly 85% of whale deaths since 2010. Ghost gear entraps not only whales but sea turtles, sharks, whale sharks and thousands of other victims of unintended “bycatch.”
Reinventing Fishing Gear
In our article: Can Hi-Tech, the U.N. and Drones Defeat Ghost Gear? we reported on several ways to combat the “ghost gear” plague. One is to offer fishermen incentives to find, recover and properly dispose of their lost nets. Another is to outlaw or phase out the use of drift/gill nets, this action was taken recently by California.
Reinventing fishing gear by tagging it, so if lost, authorities can track the found gear back to its original owners. This is a program that the UN recently committed to, while a high tech solution might be the use of FADs. Fish Aggregating Devices have been used by fishermen for years to attract fish. Now “smart FADs” equipped with GPS and tracked by satellite, might be a smart way to locate and recover ghost gear.
Another possible solution
The beleaguered North Atlantic Right Whales migrate along the Atlantic coast of North America from their winter calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida northward to their summer feeding grounds off eastern Canada. This annual migration takes them along the coast of Maine and New Brunswick. Areas long famous for their lobster and crab fishing.
We’ve all seen them, lobster traps stacked by the hundreds on the piers of picturesque New England fishing villages. Invented by Ebenezer Thorndike of Swampscott, Massachusetts in 1808, materials may have changed but the principle remains pretty much unchanged. A baited trap or “pot” that lies on the ocean floor is connected by a long rope to a buoy, floating on the surface. The buoy identifies the owner of the trap and the long rope allows him to retrieve his trap.
Catching more than Lobster
When a passing whale inadvertently comes into contact with one of these ropes their immediate instinct is to roll, an action that unfortunately ensnares them in a lethal combination of rope, buoy and trap. Even if the whale can escape immediate drowning, it will often be towing a trail of heavy fishing gear that eventually can prove deadly.
Getting Rid of the Ropes
It does not need to play out this way. Reinventing fishing gear has already begun. There are methods and technology available and being used that eliminate the necessity of a long rope. Traps might be tagged with GPS allowing the fishermen to retrieve their gear with a grappling hook. Crab fishermen in Florida are already using this strategy.
Another technology that has actually been in use by the oil and gas industry for decades are acoustic retrieval mechanisms. A fisherman on the surface sends a signal to his “pot” triggering the release of a buoy and guide rope that floats to the surface allowing recovery of the gear.
Ropeless fishing traps will only be widely accepted, however if everyone is on the same page. Other fishermen need to know where your traps are located, especially those fishing with drag nets. However, locator technology allowing fishermen to co-exist is also available.
Getting Rid of Ghost Gear
The use of ropeless technology is just one of the many safeguards that need to be initiated to save the North Atlantic Right Whale from extinction. Controlling the where and when of shipping traffic and a reduction in underwater noise caused by passing vessels, military sonar and seismic detonations from oil and gas exploration all need to be part of a comprehensive solution.
Obviously the plague of Ghost Gear will not disappear with the introduction of ropeless lobster traps. Reinventing fishing gear should be part of the solution in this one particular instance. However clear thinking, appropriate fishing methods and new technology may in combination set a new course in ridding our seas of these lethal hazards.
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