Cordless fishing holds promise, but there’s a catch: financial, safety and tech challenges


The lobster industry could have a new sound.

On a cold January morning, a lobster trap sitting on a table in a Wareham manufacturing plant beeps rhythmically. Two last beeps have a special meaning.

“So this is confirmation of the release,” said Rob Morris, who sells acoustic release systems for underwater technology company EdgeTech.

Using this technology, lobster boats can send the acoustic signal from a phone application to a trap on the ocean floor. The signal triggers an airbag, with a line attached, to launch to the surface, allowing traps to be hoisted. These “cordless” systems eliminate the large number of vertical lines that run from buoys on the surface to traps on the ocean floor.

Looking at this painting, Morris sees the future of fishing – and many conservationists share that hope. Cordless fishing eliminates vertical lines in the water column that are responsible for about half of all reported North Atlantic right whale deaths.

But experts say the transition to cordless is going too slowly. By the time work equipment can enter the boats of thousands of lobster fishermen across New England, it may be too late to save critically endangered right whales.

It is hampered by technical, regulatory and financial factors.

“If you talk to fishermen about cordless fishing, one of the first questions that comes out of their mouths is, ‘What is it going to cost? “Said Mark Baumgartner, marine ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and vice president of the Cordless Consortium. “For me, that’s a 100 percent legitimate question. If this gear is going to cost them too much, the adoption of cordless is essentially the closure of fishing. “

Current EdgeTech systems could cost anywhere from $ 7,500 for a line of traps to $ 70,000 for a boat’s total gear conversion, according to Morris. Economies of scale are expected to reduce this, but even so, it is out of reach for almost all fishermen.

Government funding will be essential, said Erica Fuller, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation.

“Our hope is that in the Biden administration, the right whale emergency will translate into the urgency to get some of this funding,” she said.

With funding, scientists and engineers can also solve technical problems more quickly, especially around the marking of gear.

“The part marking the location of the gears is the speed limit step,” Baumgartner said. “This is the thing that keeps us from moving towards some kind of commercial adoption.”

Gear marking apps do the job buoys once did – they provide a visual cue for anglers to know where traps are on the seabed.

Currently, each of the few cordless gear manufacturers uses their own app to mark trap locations, and their apps do not talk to each other. If there is no shared system for viewing gear, lobster boats may unknowingly get their traps entangled in other fishermen’s gear.

That’s a big sticking point for critics: Cordless technology won’t be safe until gear markings are understood.

“The technology is like… we’re at the Model T today, and people expect us to be at the Tesla tomorrow,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

The association does not support cordless technology, at least not until the creation of a shared database that will allow fishermen to see traps on the seabed. The manufacturers say they are working on it. But, Casoni said, there is still a long way to go in whether cordless technology is viable for mass adoption.

“We need a large scale, scientific and unbiased feasibility study on the whole,” Casoni said. “We have to put five boats in a big square, fish for mobile cordless gear, and see what really happens.”

In Massachusetts, efforts are underway. The state recently announced a 12-month cordless feasibility study to assess how cordless technology works, how to manage law enforcement and its impact on marine life and the lobster industry of the New England, valued at $ 600 million.

But Casoni pointed out the hidden obstacle of cordless technology: If lobster vessels perceive cordless equipment to be unsafe, unreliable, or economically impractical, they won’t be willing to use it during shutdowns, let alone. during the rest of the year.

Environmentalists like Mark Baumgartner are keenly aware of what could happen if these challenges are not overcome, and soon.

“The twin problem of the extinction of the right whale and the incredibly difficult times – if not the extinction – of the trap fishing industry could be tackled simultaneously with one solution,” he said drumming. the table to punctuate each word. “If we can get it right without a rope. “

Experts say it will take at least five years to find out if cordless is the solution, and in those five years what will make the difference is how badly we want it.

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