In push to design easy-to-use ropeless traps, Halifax company turns to fishermen

Ashored Innovations is trying to design an affordable ropeless trap for crab and lobster fishermen. It's aimed at reducing the threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Ashored Innovations creating new trap design to cut threat to endangered North Atlantic right whales

From left, Ashored Innovations co-founders Aaron Stevenson, Ross Arsenault and Maxwell Poole. (Ashored Innovations)

A small Halifax business is using input from crab and lobster fishermen as it works on a ropeless trap design, an effort aimed at reducing how often fishing areas are closed in order to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Rope that connects traps on the ocean floor to buoys on the surface can entangle marine life and has been blamed for some of the whale deaths last year in East Coast waters.

But Ashored Innovations is designing a trap where rope will no longer linger in the water column. The buoy will go down with the trap and a retrieval system will float it to the surface when it's time to haul in the catch.

While similar designs for ropeless fishing exist, they're often expensive and time-consuming for fishermen.

That's why Ashored's three co-founders realized the only way to create a sustainable trap would be to include the fishermen from Day 1.

"The three of us joined forces and really took the approach of not trying to push a product or push a solution, but trying to find a solution," Ross Arsenault​ said.

"It's been very two-way in that regard. Us showing a willingness to listen and understand the actual issue from their perspective, as opposed to just thinking we know everything, is something that's easing up the tension that would normally be there."

About 300 fishermen from across the Acadian Peninsula held an emergency meeting last month to discuss the latest fishing area closure and what their options may be. (Radio-Canada )

Since June 2017, 19 dead right whales have washed up along the East Coast of Canada and the U.S. Some of the deaths have been blamed on fishing equipment. In other cases, whales died after being hit by ships.

Scientists say part of the problem is that fishing ropes have become thicker and stronger in recent years, making it more difficult for whales to escape.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced changes to the snow crab fishery in January to reduce the amount of rope floating on the surface and make mandatory the reporting of all lost gear.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has also instituted more than 20 fishing-area closures this year in the Atlantic region after right whales were spotted, creating tension in the industry.

And Ashored co-founders Arsenault, Aaron Stevenson and Maxwell Poole say getting the fishermen on board hasn't been easy.

"There's those that don't understand or equate the problems with the whales as being an issue that fishermen have to bear the cost of," Stevenson said.

"But there are an equal number of others that have really sat down and said, 'Let's figure out something that will work.' And have expressed a desire to be part of the process to develop a solution."

A right whale entangled in gear in the Bay of Fundy. (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Poole knows first hand just how important the fishing industry is to families in the Maritimes. Growing up in Yarmouth, N.S., his dad has been a marine mechanic "since forever" and his brother is now a lobster fisherman.

His focus has been finding out what's important to fishermen in a new design, but because of patent concerns he wouldn't get into specifics about the design itself.

"Ultimately, cost is a big issue, so we need to make sure it's affordable, whether that comes from subsidies or building a solution that's low cost. But also something that doesn't add too much time to their day. If it's a long process compared to the hauling of a trap right now, then they're not interested," Poole said.

"With the right engineering, I think we can fix those problems. It's not easy, but I think we can get there."

The three entrepreneurs have been speaking to fishermen across different bodies of water since last fall to try and get as many different perspectives as possible.

"We understand the Bay of Fundy fishermen are going to have a different fishing experience than those who are fishing off of Yarmouth, or off Cape Breton," Arseneault said.

Since joining forces, the three master's students have garnered $100,000 in funding from startup challenges, as well as from Dalhousie University and Saint Mary's University.

They currently have a series of "very rough prototypes" in indoor tanks, but will have a final design ready to head out onto boats this fall.

Arsenault​ said a number of fishing associations have agreed to take part in pilot groups, but they're always looking for more.

"We want to make sure we're not missing anything," he said.

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia