How ropeless fishing traps could protect North Atlantic right whales — and the fishing industry

Six Atlantic fishing areas were temporarily closed this week to protect two critically endangered right whales. Scientist Michael Moore says it's possible to save the whales without halting the industry.

'We have to move now and not wait another 10 years,' says scientist Michael Moore

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)
Listen8:47

Tensions between Atlantic fishermen and conservationists escalated this week as the Department of Oceans and Fisheries closed six fishing grounds off the coasts of New Brunswick and Quebec.

The closures were put in place in an effort to protect two North Atlantic right whales that had been spotted in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. By Friday, the number of whales seen in the area had increased to 12.

The whales' arrival left many Canadian fishermen scrambling to remove their equipment from the affected waters amidst concern over what the closures could mean for their quotas.

But scientist and veterinarian Michael Moore is advocating for a new technology that could appease both groups: ropeless fishing traps.

In the past year, at least a dozen North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters, often as the result of entanglement. The whales are considered endangered, and less than 500 remain.

According to Moore, ropeless fishing traps may well be the key to saving the whales — without requiring any fisheries to close.

While such traps are already used commercially in Australia, they have not yet been adopted in North America.

"We need to increase the volume and reduce the cost of that kind of retrieval mechanism to make it practical and viable for the industry," scientist and veterinarian Michael Moore told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Without such interventions, Moore and others fear the species could be extinct within the next 20 years.

'Animals are in chronic pain'

The standard traps used by Canadian fishermen at present are retrieved using a rope that's suspended in the water column with a buoy at the top.

Those ropes are a major hazard for the right whales, which often become dangerously tangled up in them.

"It is very, very severe," says Moore. "The animals are in chronic pain. They have to be, they've got rope that are constricting on their flippers ... such that potentially they are partially amputated and the tails too."

Ropeless traps eliminate the need for that static rope line in the water, theoretically allowing the whales safe passage. 

Idea once considered crazy could eliminate the entanglements that threaten North Atlantic right whales 1:08

There are several forms of ropeless trap technology in development.

The model used in Australia, developed by a company called Desert Star, replaces the static rope and buoy that are traditionally attached to the traps with a negatively buoyant bag that has a coiled rope tucked inside it, along with a small floatation device.

Other devices forego the rope entirely, relying instead on an inflatable buoy that attaches directly to the trap itself.

"When it's time to retrieve it," Moore explains, "there is an acoustic trigger that enables one form or another of a buoyancy device to either the bring the instrument back up or to send up a buoyant line."

Traps like these are set to be tested by fishermen in the Maritimes this summer, even though they were once considered "crazy," according to marine biologist Mark Baumgartner who spoke with CBC News in March.

Still, the technology has found some resistance among fishermen.

"It's a question of priority and economy and socioeconomic survival of the [fishing] communities versus the biodiversity aspects," Moore says.

Reversing fate

Moore warns that there is not much time left to save the North Atlantic right whales. But he believes it's possible, if pressures are put in place to encourage the fishing industry to adopt this new technology.

The whales have made a comeback before, Moore says. Before whaling was banned in Canada, he estimates that only 250 of the mammals remained — a little more than half of current numbers.

I don't want to see my neighbour go out of business.- Michael Moore

Ropeless fishing, Moore believes, is among the few aspects of the fishery where changes can be made to reverse the loss of right whales.

"If, essentially, the Gulf of St. Lawrence was rope-free along with the Gulf of Maine tomorrow, I think it's very reasonable to assume that we'd start to see a growth rate of North Atlantic right whale numbers of a healthy 3 or 4 per cent," he says.

There isn't much room to maneuver, however.

"We have to move now and not wait [for] another 10 years of the science to tell us that right whales die if they get entangled in rope," he says. "We know that."

Change won't happen overnight

Moore acknowledges it's complicated to overhaul the equipment for an entire industry.

But already, ropeless fishing technology has come a long way.

"It's kind of like looking at cell phones 25 years ago versus cell phones now," says Moore. "Many of us feel that this [adopting ropeless traps] can happen."

This North Atlantic right whale was a two-year-old female who was found dead on Sept. 15, 2017. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Robert Haché, director general of the Acadian Crabbers Association, told CBC News in March that fishermen want to do all they can to prevent entanglements. That's why they've committed testing the modern traps.

But Moore concedes that a complete replacement in fishing gear won't happen overnight.

"This is actively fished gear and it belongs to fishermen; it could belong to my neighbour," he says.

"I don't want to see my neighbour go out of business."


To hear the full interview with Michael Moore, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.