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NOAA wants to expand 'ropeless' fishing gear pilot to include some Maine lobstermen

A ropeless lobster trap.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A ropeless lobster trap.

Last winter as part of a pilot project, some Massachusetts lobstermen were allowed to fish in areas that are seasonally closed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. But they had to use so-called "on-demand" or "ropeless" fishing gear and work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to share their feedback.

Now NOAA wants to expand the program to include lobster and other fixed-gear fishermen throughout New England. Federal officials have proposed issuing permits to more than 200 people, with priority given to those who fish closed areas during the winter.

More than 100 people in Maine fish those closed areas. And fishermen aren't thrilled with the idea of opening access to only some of them, said Patrice McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen's Association — unless there's enough on-demand gear to go around to everyone.

"To give just a handful of guys an opportunity to fish in there in the wintertime, get paid to test that gear and get to land those lobsters when nobody else has a shot at them is simply not fair, and we do strongly oppose that," she said.

NOAA said in its proposal that the goal is to expand testing of ropeless gear to more fishermen, with the idea of eventually adopting it at a wider scale.

But McCarron said the Maine fishery doesn't see the utility of having a small number of lobstermen test the gear in an isolated area, because the practice wouldn't resolve the biggest questions that fishermen have about on-demand tools.

"We know the gear will pop up. We know a fishermen can innovate and find a way to work that on their deck space, so what are solving in terms of getting fishermen closer to ropeless fishing?" McCarron said. "Can that gear be fished around other gear? Is the virtual buoy marking as accurate as a traditional buoy? Can boats around them know where the sunken gear is and not get into gear conflict issues? So sort of letting people into a closed area and just letting a few in, doesn't really help us resolve the questions about how to make ropeless fishing operable."

Under the NOAA proposal, exempted fishing could take place starting in August and continue for a year.

A small number of Maine lobstermen have been quietly testing ropeless fishing gear, though those efforts are due to expand. The state has applied for federal grant funding to create its own gear library so that Maine lobstermen can test a variety of fishing techniques.

And the Maine Legislature has passed a bill this session that would establish a new, $1 million fund to help compensate lobster fishermen who test ropeless and other kinds of emerging gear, but it still needs to compete for a limited pool of state appropriations to make the fund functional.