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MA lobstermen want to invent a better lobster trap

Lexi Krupp

Patrick Flanary: For years, right whale advocates and engineers have been trying to develop new lobster fishing gear designed to prevent whales from entanglements. But most local lobstermen say they’re against this so-called “on demand” fishing gear that’s been created. Now, as CAI’s Eve Zuckoff reports, lobstermen have decided to come up with their own technology. Eve, you were the first to report this, thanks for being here this morning.

Eve Zuckoff: Thanks for having me.

Patrick Flanary: So the Massachusetts lobstermen’s association has just been awarded a $1.2 million grant to develop new fishing gear. What’s their proposal? 

Eve Zuckoff: Over the next year they’ll be working with an engineer to develop a “pinger” inside a lobster trap that sends satellite signals to show where traps are on the seafloor. So whenever a lobsterman is ready to collect his catch, he or she will go wherever the pinger says, throw a grapple — these metal hooks — down into the water, and haul up the traps.

All of this eliminates the need for a traditional buoy marking where their gear is, and an extra rope called an “end line” that’s known to entangle whales.

But to be clear: lobstermen don’t want to use this gear year round — just during closures — specifically an upcoming 3-month-long period where they have to be out of local waters to protect the whales.

Patrick Flanary: What would this pinger/grappling system replace exactly? 

Eve Zuckoff: In recent years, engineers have developed “on demand gear,” sometimes called "ropeless gear." Here's how that works: when lobstermen set their traps, there is an inflatable bag and compressed air tank — or something similar — inside one of them. And when a lobsterman is ready to haul up their gear, they hit a button on an app, which triggers the bag to inflate, and the bag floats up to the surface where the lobsterman can haul it all in. But Beth Casoni, head of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s association said her group is not a fan.

“The current systems are cost prohibitive," she said. "Even if the government was to buy them, which would be ludicrous, the price tag would be insane for the entire lobster fishery.”

So the on-demand technology is similar to the pinger and grappling hook in that there’s no more buoy and stagnant rope just waiting in the water, ready entangle a passing whale, but the pinger eliminates the need for a costly inflatable bag, air tank, and other tech.

Patrick Flanary: So cost is obviously a factor. Are the pingers cheaper?

Eve Zuckoff: Ding, ding, ding! For now, as Casoni said, on demand gear is being subsidized by the federal government, but at some point, the cost could fall in fishermen to the tune of $3,000-7,500 for one line of traps. And lobstermen typically fish many lines of traps. The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association hopes pingers will cost just $300-$400 per line of traps.

Patrick Flanary: So lobstermen may favor pingers to on-demand gear, but there’s no proof yet that it’ll work.

Eve Zuckoff: Right. Any gear that isn’t marked at the surface by a buoy still needs to be known to other fishermen. Scallopers, who drag nets behind their boats — and other lobstermen, of course — will need to know where any traps are on the seafloor to avoid gear conflict, which can be dangerous and costly. So there are plenty of reasons to use some healthy skepticism here.

But, look, lobstermen in Massachusetts have done a lot for the whales, but they’re also famously hesitant to change, and on demand gear has become just loathsome. So if they’re in the drivers seat, if they’re co-creating their future gear, that could meaningful, and it could even encourage whale advocates who support on-demand gear to consider something new.

Patrick Flanary: Are regulators who’d have to permit pingers in support of this new effort?

Eve Zuckoff: I talked with Dan McKiernan, director of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries, and he was measured in his response. He said his office would work closely with lobstermen to share where they think this idea would work and, he noted, where it wouldn’t. But overall, he supported the spirit of the project.

"I think it's appropriate to allow the rank and file lobstermen to kind of set the course for how they'd like to see the fisheries managed going forward," he said.

And those rank and file lobstermen are moving fast; by 2025 they want to start testing their pingers and grappling system on the water.

Patrick Flanary: That’s CAI’s Eve Zuckoff. Eve, thank you.

Eve Zuckoff: Thanks, Patrick.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.
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