Nova Scotia·Q&A

New lending program lets fish harvesters test out ropeless gear

The Canadian Wildlife Federation announced a new lending program this week for ropeless fishing gear and "low-breaking strength devices" that it hopes will help keep whales safe, and harvesters out on the water.

Ropeless gear represents whole new way of fishing, says conservation biologist

The Canadian Wildlife Federation unveiled a new gear lending program on Thursday to help the East Coast fishing industry access ropeless fishing gear. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

The Canadian Wildlife Federation has launched a new lending program for ropeless fishing gear that it hopes will help keep whales safe, and harvesters out on the water.

The CanFish program is an effort to protect large sea creatures like the endangered North Atlantic right whale from getting caught up in fishing rope. 

Sean Brillant, a senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, said it's also meant to help harvesters who aren't able to work when fishing areas close.

"In some cases, especially if you're facing a fisheries closure, many fish harvesters have said this ropeless fishing is a real pain in the butt, but ropeless fishing is better than not fishing," Brillant told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon on Thursday.

He spoke with guest host Brett Ruskin about how the gear works. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full interview here:

What's this all about? 

What this does is it gives them a tool that can allow them to fish in areas that are closed because of the presence of whales. These devices are kind of new and innovative and expensive — they're difficult to get your hands on sometimes. 

So we've developed a gear-lending program, kind of along the same model as a community tool library ... and this gives fish harvesters a chance to kind of test this gear out, see if it works for them, and learn how to use it.

The current way is to have some kind of a trap on the bottom of the ocean with a big long rope that goes up to a buoy on the surface. What's the problem with that? 

Because that buoy line is sort of present everywhere from the bottom of the ocean right to the sea surface, these are the ropes that whales often will run into or become entangled with. For this reason, the federal government is closing large areas to fishing where they know that there are lots of right whales because they don't want the whales running into these buoy lines. 

There are two ways that these devices work. One is the buoy lines are held at the depths so that there is no buoy line in the persistent water column, and that way the whales won't become entangled in it. This device holds the buoy line at depth, and then when the fisherman sends a signal, it releases the buoy line and it floats to the surface, and then they can grab it.

There's another device which actually is a bag that gets filled with compressed air and it lifts the whole thing to the surface. This one actually has very little rope associated with it. Calling these devices ropeless, many people point out it's a bit of a misnomer because some of them still have rope, it's just held at depth so it's not in the water where it's a risk to whales.

A large yellow cage filled with blue rope sits on the deck of a fishing boat.
Ropeless gear can be expensive to buy and is largely not available in stores. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

It sounds like an effective technology, but for lack of a better term, what's the catch? Is it slower to use if you have to call up individual traps? What are some of the downsides? 

There is a bit of a catch, not that we're trying to hide it or anything. But you're right, these devices are very expensive. They're not exactly like off-the-shelf type things. There are developers and companies, mostly in the U.S., but also one here in Nova Scotia, who are developing these devices. There's still a bit of experimentation and adjustment that's happening every year, and they're trying to figure out a way to make sure it works well. 

We work closely with a number of fish harvesters to test and see how suitable these devices are for commercial fishing.... Time is money, safety is paramount, and you've got to be able to catch fish and get home as well. So these devices are slower. They do represent a whole new way of fishing.

With these different devices, it requires some preparation to coil the buoy line into a cage at the end of the trawl, for example. In some cases, it requires a transducer and acoustic devices to make sure that you can communicate with them. You need to make sure these things are charged and have batteries so there are certainly new challenges.

Brillant said the gear will allow harvesters to keep fishing and also meet conservation standards. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

Has there been good uptake so far in this gear lending program?

It's been slow. I should mention we're also providing low-breaking strength devices. The federal government is coming out with new rules. Starting in 2023, when a fishery starts, they need to start using low-breaking strength devices on their ropes. And there's a lot of problems with this. Low-breaking strength devices don't always work for some fisheries. You're hauling very heavy gear and it could be dangerous.

The federal government is implementing these because the U.S. government is using these as a mechanism that they believe will help reduce entanglements of large whales. The Canadian government, in order to maintain market access, is really adopting many of the same rules. So we've been lending a lot of this theory to fishermen as well so that they can test it out. We've been getting them to give us some data so we can examine it. So far yes, I'm quite pleased with the uptake.

I hope that we'll be able to help a lot more fish harvesters over the next year and into the years to come with these devices. And by doing that, you know, we're going to end up helping the whales as well. That's what this is about, helping both sides.

With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon