Ropeless gear aimed at preventing right whale deaths may be commercially viable soon

A snow crab fisherman currently testing ropeless gear which may help prevent a major cause of death for the whales hopes the technology can be used commercially by 2024.

Fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales currently in existence

An overhead shot of a North Atlantic Right Whale cow with her calf from the documentary "Last of the Right Whales."
An overhead shot of a North Atlantic right whale cow with her calf from the documentary Last of the Right Whales. (Last of the Right Whales)

A snow crab fisherman currently testing ropeless gear that may help prevent a major cause of death for North Atlantic right whales hopes the technology can be used commercially by 2024.

Martin Noël from Shippigan, N.B., has been using the technology, which keeps the animal from getting entangled, during recent fishing seasons. He and 21 other fishermen have signed up to deploy the gear this summer.

Noël said the technology is "very different" to the single pots attached to a buoy through a rope which he's used to.

Standard gear connects traps on the bottom to a buoy on the surface. With ropeless gear, the ropes lie on the bottom until they are released by an acoustic signal from the fisherman, then float to the surface so the traps can be hauled.

"The fisherman uses his cellphone or a smartphone tablet and there's a deck unit with acoustic pinger ... sending an acoustic signal to the bottom of the water to the mechanism," he said.

"Once that is triggered, the cage that is having the rope in it, the cover of it is released. Some buoys are attached on that cover and that goes up to the surface of the water, and then the fisherman sees it and can pick it up."

Expensive tech

Noël said when fishermen are not out at sea, there's no gears or ropes in the water, virtually eliminating the risk of whales getting entangled.

The right whale is one of the most endangered whale species on the planet, with research suggesting there are currently fewer than 400 in existence. Rope entanglement and strikes from vessels are one of the most common causes of death for the species.

In this March 28, 2018 photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/CP/AP)

The technology is five times more expensive than the regular gear. But Noël said funding from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has helped offset the costs.

The department has invested $4.5 million into ropeless gear testing through the Atlantic Fisheries Fund since 2018, and a $20 million fund created last year.

"It needs to be able to work and in harsh conditions, you know, so it's very expensive instruments. But then again, we are in the early stage of these mechanisms," Noël said. 

"A lot of fishermen were saying 'ropeless is hopeless,' because fishing with a cellphone and no buoys seemed to be for us impossible at the time. But because of the situation of the right whale, we had to find some solutions and NGOs were saying 'the solution exists. You just try it because the way you're fishing is hurting the whales.'"

Documentary shines light on the plight of the species

The technology was featured in Last of the Right Whales, a new Canadian documentary following the migration of the whales, and the fight to keep them alive.

Wildlife pathologist and marine mammal expert Laura Bourque spoke at a screening of the film in Charlottetown this week. 

"When you're talking about a large, charismatic species that's on the brink of extinction, I think it's important for people to try to understand just what that means in the grand scheme of things," she said. 

"I'd like anybody who sees this film and is moved by it to try to think about what they can do in their everyday life to help this situation and try to prevent the extinction of this species."

Bourque said she's hopeful the technology behind the ropeless gear can be both financially and logistically feasible so that more fishermen can adopt it.

"I don't want anybody to blame fishermen. They're an important part of our culture, of our country," she said. 

"But I think [we should be] supporting our fishermen in other ways, like encouraging our government to provide support for them to move into more sustainable fishing options."

With files from Island Morning