‘The Time is Now’ to Change How We Catch Lobsters

Feb 12, 2018

Credit Moira Brown and New England Aquarium

A workshop in Woods Hole on February 1st brought together an unusual combination of scientists, engineers, fishermen, and government regulators to talk about an even more unusual idea: catching lobsters with no rope connecting the traps at the bottom with a buoy at the surface.

There has been a crisis in right whale entanglements over the last year. Seventeen North Atlantic right whales were found dead in 2017, most showing signs of entanglement or ship strikes. This, in a species with fewer than 450 animals left.

The problem has gotten worse over the last 20 years because fishing ropes have gotten stronger, meaning that whales can’t break free as often, and because more people are fishing for lobsters after other fisheries, like cod, collapsed.

Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says there was a surprising amount of agreement among lobstermen at the February conference that whale entanglement in lobster gear is a problem. That’s a change from just one year ago.

There a few ideas for how to get lobster trap “end - lines” out of the water column. The basic idea is that the lines could be stored at the bottom of the ocean rather than stretching from the sea floor to a surface buoy. A fisherman could trigger the line to float to the surface with an acoustic signal.

There’s a prototype of such a system, but it would take more funding to get it into the hands of fishermen.

There’s not much time to get that started, Baumgartner warns. In 20 years, the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale will be inevitable if nothing changes. Weaker ropes and rope-less lobster fishing equipment is needed to avoid a closure of the entire lobster industry, he says.

“I think the conversation is going to stop,” Baumgartner says. “We're not going to be talking about solutions anymore we're going to be yelling at each other. So we have to do something about this problem now before we get to a place where we just can't have a dialogue about it anymore. That time is now.”