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Costs of using ropeless fishing gear could sink MA lobster fishery: new report

Rob Martin, a member of the "Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co-Existence" group, uses ropeless lobster fishing gear in Cape Cod Bay.
Eve Zuckoff
Rob Martin, a member of the "Pioneers for a Thoughtful Co Existence" group, uses ropeless lobster fishing gear in Cape Cod Bay.

PATRICK FLANARY: Experts often say the lobster fishery will have to move to innovative “ropeless” fishing gear to protect North Atlantic right whales from entanglement. There fewer than 340 of the critically endangered whales left. But a new report says Massachusetts lobstermen may be headed for troubled economic waters if they make the switch.  Eve Zuckoff has the details and she joins us now. Hi Eve. 

EVE ZUCKOFF: Hi Patrick!

PATRICK FLANARY: Eve, remind us how “ropeless” or “on-demand” fishing gear is different from traditional trap/pots.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well, let’s start with the way traditional gear works. At its most basic, lobstermen connect 5, 10, even 50 traps and toss them onto the sea floor. And then then at the surface they’ve got their buoy, which is connected with a long rope down to those traps. The problem is that those static lines will sit in the ocean as whales swim by and they’ve been connected to entanglements. These critically endangered right whales are really struggling with this: some 80% appear to have been wrapped in rope at least once in their lives.

Now, the idea is that “on-demand” or “ropeless” gear gets rid of the rope that runs from sea surface to seafloor. Instead, fishermen put their line of traps on the sea floor, and then when they head out to collect the lobsters some days later and haul up the traps, they push a button and a balloon gets inflated or a buoy in coiled rope gets released, and these pop up at the surface. So that’s why it’s called “on-demand” gear, which is a more accurate term than “ropeless,” so I’ll keep calling it that from here out.

PATRICK FLANARY: These balloons really intrigue me. I’m trying to envision how this will actually look. The gear, Eve, is undergoing testing but it has been controversial. Lobstermen have raised concerns about cost, how safe it’s going to be. So the state wanted to understand: what would it take to fully convert roughly 800  Massachusetts lobstermen to fully on-demand gear. What did they just find? 

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well the state did a really interesting thing, which was to basically operate from this place that says time is money for a lobsterman. Because the modern lobster fishing business is about hauling up gear quickly to bring in large volumes of lobster. So the question becomes: how long would take to do everything you need to with on-demand gear to catch lobsters versus traditional gear?

And what they found is that with today’s traditional gear, Massachusetts lobstermen bring in roughly $15 million in revenue after costs each year. That includes buying new traps, paying the crew, maintaining the boat. With the time and expense of fully converting to on-demand gear, the state fishery would make -$24 million a year in revenue. And that’s with a 15 year loan to buy the on-demand gear with favorable interest rates.

PATRICK FLANARY: So they’d be going deep into the hole for this potentially. But no one thinks lobstermen would have to buy all the gear by themselves. The federal government and nonprofits and other entities have discussed paying for this. 

EVE ZUCKOFF: Yeah. But here’s what’s really crazy: the state found that even if lobstermen were just given the on-demand gear for free — using government and nonprofit subsidies — they would still go from making $15 million per year in revenue to just $2 million in revenue per year. That’s because it takes so much longer to catch a lobster with on-demand gear.

And the biggest impacts would be on smaller, more independent operators. I talked to the report author about this, Noah Oppenhiem. He said for lobstermen that only fish only a couple traps per vertical line, they’d go from needing 6 and a half minutes to haul up some lobsters to 11 and a half minutes.

“If you fished 35 to 40 foot boat using all on-demand gear, you would make -$28,000 a year,” Oppenheim said. “That that you know those are stark numbers.”

The gap shrinks for bigger boats that fish offshore but it still, in every scenario, takes longer to perform the task of catching lobster with on-demand gear and it really would decimate the fishery’s already small profit margin.

PATRICK FLANARY: So Eve, how definitive is a report like this one and what does it mean for what the state is going to do about converting to on-demand fishing gear?

EVE ZUCKOFF: Well regulators are being tight lipped about how this report moves the needle in one direction or another. That’s largely because of a key point that we haven’t talked about yet. So this report is the first application of a new model that’ll have an important role in decision making, but it’s designed to be nimble, and iterated upon. Here’s Noah Oppenheim again:

“We built this model in the report around one scenario which is the transition of all Massachusetts fishing gear to on-demand,” he said. “In reality that’s probably an unrealistic scenario.”

It’s more likely, now that regulators have looked at these unbelievable cost to lobstermen, that they would adjust the model to figure out what would happen if just offshore lobstermen used on-demand gear three months of the year when whales are here in high numbers, for example.

The report also acknowledges there are many limitations to this first application of the model. It only uses data from a very small number of fishermen with limited experience using one type of on-demand gear made by one company. With more companies developing more gear, and as lobstermen get more experience, the throughput rate, the time it takes to use on-demand gear versus traditional year, could definitely improve.

PATRICK FLANARY: Eve, I know you’ll be getting reactions to this report in the coming days and we’ll look forward to those. Thanks for giving us this first look.

EVE ZUCKOFF: Thank you!

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.