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Business and Economy

Underwater Drones: Regulators Trying New Technology To Enforce Lobster Trap Rules

Maine Lobsters
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
FILE- In this Sept. 21, 2020 file photo, a sternman checks a lobster while fishing off South Portland, Maine. The Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday fishermen caught more than 96 million pounds of lobsters in 2020.

The enforcement of lobster trap rules far offshore is getting increased attention from state and federal regulators, who are turning to new technology to inspect gear for compliance with requirements that aim to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements.

Michael Henry is a top fisheries enforcement officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here in the northeast. He says physically inspecting bulky gear out in federal waters dozens of miles off Maine can be a daunting and time-consuming task.

"It's been a challenge for us for a long time to be able to effectively haul lobster gear offshore — just the environmental challenges, the safety challenges," he says.

But inspectors are checking to see if lobstermen are complying with requirements to insert weak links into their traplines, to help whales break through the rope, and to use rope that sinks to the bottom, instead of floating into the water column where whales are more likely to swim.

In federal waters, NOAA inspectors traditionally winch those trap-laden ropes to the surface for examination. But last year, the agency started testing remotely-operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs, outfitted with video cameras, to dive underwater and send images back to a vessel.

Only when potential violations are found does the officer then winch the gear up for a direct inspection.

"We did have some success: we identified gear with floating ground lines, missing trap-tags and unmarked surface gear," says Henry.

Henry says the agency is hiring a contractor to deploy the vehicles in the fisheries that lie farthest from shore more often this year, and may buy smaller versions for use by federal patrols closer in.

Some lobster industry advocates say NOAA needs to do more than just add ROVs to its toolkit.

"I don't know why NOAA is investing in that and not actually having the same sort of enforcement across all segments of the fleet," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

McCarron is skeptical that the addition of ROVs alone will be sufficient once new gear rules are enacted this fall. Those will likely require ropes to have specific breaking strengths and diameters, and contain more weak links.

She says a new initiative by the state's Department of Marine Resources could help, though. As part of Governor Mills 'budget proposal for federal recovery plan dollars, DMR is asking for $3.3 million dollars for marine patrol infrastructure, including the purchase of a large vessel equipped to routinely handle the challenges of at-sea inspections.

"And actually be able to go out, patrol, haul gear, you know, buoy-to-trap, look at everything, haul the gear on board and be able to do true enforcement," says McCarron.

The Legislature's Appropriations Committee could act on that request next week.