New Brunswick crab fishermen test ropeless traps in effort to protect whales

Right whale entangled in fishing equipment [Credit: International Fund for Animal Welfare]

It’s no secret that fishing ropes and whales do not mix. Fishing boats and ropes are considered one of the top threats to the survival of endangered North Atlantic Right Whales (there are believed to be less than 450 remaining), and to other whale species as well. Last year, two right whales were killed due to entanglement, and a further five whales became entangled but survived.

To help protect these struggling whale populations, new Brunswick crab fishermen are testing out two new ropeless traps.

“Ropeless fishing will solve this problem,” marine biologist Mark Baumgartner of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts told the CBC.

Traditional crab and lobster traps are baited mesh containers that are sunk to the ocean floor to lure crabs in. To mark where the traps have been left, fishers attach the traps to buoys using ropes, which can ensnare whales.

The proposed new traps don’t use buoys that sit constantly at the surface of the water. Instead, the traps sit at the ocean floor unattached.

The first type is an “acoustic release” trap. It has a coiled rope and buoy that sink to the ocean floor along with the trap. When fishermen want to collect it, they can electronically trigger it to release the buoy to the surface so they can locate the trap and pull it up. Under this system, the rope is only in the water for a brief time before fishers pull it up.

“Everybody is going to benefit from this kind of system whether it’s our system or somebody else who comes along and makes it better,” said Jacob Wolf, marketing and sales coordinator with Desert Star, the company that makes the trap. “No matter what, ropeless fishing is going to benefit the whales, it’s going to benefit the fishers, the community and the consumers.”

The acoustic release system has been being used in Australia since 2011.

The second type of trap uses an inflatable buoy. The trap sinks to the ocean floor with the buoy attached.

“The buoy is still on the pot but it’s deflated,” Richard Riels, executive director of the Sea Mammal Education Learning Technology Society, and the creator of the trap, explains. “And we inflate it by an acoustic trigger that opens high-pressure gas that will fill the bag and lift the trap.”

Crab trap with inflatable buoy at surface of water
[Credit: SMELTS]

This system doesn’t require ropes at all, as the buoy simply pulls the trap up to the ocean’s surface.

“[T]here’s no gear that we can’t lift from the bottom of the ocean to the surface with this type of technology,” Riel said.

“Ropeless [fishing] was seen as kind of a crazy idea before,” said Baumgartner, “but now it looks like the only actual solution to the problem.”

Eliminating ropes is an important step in protecting right whales, particularly as freeing entangled whales can be difficult and dangerous. A whale rescuer was killed while trying to free an entangled right whale in the summer of 2017.

Robert Haché of the Acadian Crabbers Association says the group will be testing the new traps this crabbing season, which should begin around April 20. Until then, the snow crab industry has lost its designation as “sustainable” under the Marine Stewardship Council due to whale entanglements.

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