The lobstermen viewed themselves as trailblazers, even calling themselves “Pioneers for a Thoughtful Coexistence.” That was before fellow fishermen threatened to burn their boats and accused them of trying to steal their catch.
In an effort to prove that there’s a way for their industry to resume fishing in coastal waters where Massachusetts banned lobstering to protect endangered whales, they have asked regulators to allow them to set their traps without vertical buoy lines. Those heavy ropes, which connect traps on the seafloor to buoys on the surface, have entangled large numbers of North Atlantic right whales, scientists say, seriously injuring or killing the critically endangered species.
If the state approves their proposal, which has received support from right whale scientists and environmental groups, it would be the first time commercial lobster fishing would be allowed without buoy lines in any state waters.
“I’ve been trying my best to get our guys back fishing,” said Michael Lane, 46, a lobsterman who fishes 800 traps out of Cohasset. “I’ve seen so much taken away from us, for years; it’s nice to finally have the chance to see something going in the right direction. This could be a win for the fishing community.”
But when Lane’s group presented at a recent public hearing their proposal to fish with experimental ropeless gear — which would use remotely triggered inflatable balloons or other devices to surface the traps — they were pilloried by their fellow fishermen. Opponents compared them to thieves, with some suggesting they were traitors who were making it more likely that federal regulators would require the rest of the fleet to use the expensive technology.
The backlash, accompanied by vitriolic attacks on social media, led some in the small group to drop out.
Lane said he felt like a “black sheep.”
“It’s scary as hell to reinvent the buoy, and I understand their fears,” he said. “But I took offense to what they were saying. I thought we were doing a good thing for the industry, and they’re ready to get the gallows out and hang me?”
State officials said they’re considering the proposal, which seeks to allow five lobstermen to use ropeless gear, provided to them by the federal government, to fish as many as 200 traps in waters along the South Shore that are closed for three months a year to lobster fishing.
To protect right whales, some areas along the coast, such as Cape Cod Bay, have since 2015 been closed to lobster fishing between February and May, when large numbers of them feed in those waters. As the decline of the whales’ population has accelerated — scientists estimate their numbers are down 30 percent in the last decade — federal officials pressured the state to act. As a result, state officials last year expanded the three-month ban on traditional lobster fishing to most of its coastal waters.
“I do not expect to issue a decision for a few more weeks,” said Dan McKiernan, director of the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
He declined to comment on whether he’s inclined to permit ropeless fishing. “I am still gathering information from staff and considering the extensive comments,” he said.
After years of protesting the annual closures, officials at the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association urged McKiernan to reject the pioneers’ proposal, arguing that it could lead to “catastrophic” conflicts with other fisheries.
They noted that McKiernan has raised similar concerns. A year ago, in a memo, he worried about the possibility of a scallop boat towing a dredge through a string of connected lobster traps that weren’t identified by surface buoys. “This can cause damage to the gear, or worse, jeopardize the safety of the crew,” he wrote. “If the scallop vessel becomes ‘hung up’ on the gear, it puts the vessel at risk of capsizing.”
“Given that commercial fishing in the United States is the deadliest job already, why would any mobile gear want to be put in additional harm’s way given the uncertainty and risk?” wrote Beth Casoni, executive director of the Lobstermen’s Association, in a letter to McKiernan, referring to draggers and other fishermen who comb the seafloor with dredges and nets.
She raised other concerns about the potential impact of ropeless fishing on the industry, which includes more than 700 lobstermen in Massachusetts whose catch was valued at nearly $80 million in 2020.
Despite previous arguments she has made against the need for closures to protect the whales, Casoni insisted that ropeless fishing could put the whales at more risk during months when the waters would otherwise be closed. And that, she worried, could in turn lead to more sanctions against the lobster industry.
“The risk to the entire commercial lobster industry is too high to allow this project to take place during the closure months … when there is a zero chance of an interaction between right whales and fixed gear, be it a trap/pot or a vessel,” she wrote. “Adding more risk at a time when the commercial lobster industry is most vulnerable is inexcusable.”
But scientists who study right whales and conservation groups seeking to protect them not only support the proposal but have helped them obtain the gear and refine their efforts. They have long encouraged state and federal officials to allow lobstermen to experiment with ropeless gear, which they say could be the ultimate solution to the long-term protection of the whales — and other marine mammals — while maintaining a robust lobster fishery throughout the year.
While they acknowledge the concerns about gear conflict and potential risks to the whales, including from the boats passing through the area to collect their catch, they say the technology has come a long way in recent years and that the risks to the whales is minimal. They also note there are ways to make the ropeless gear visible digitally to different fisheries, as well as law enforcement officials, such as using GPS to show the location of the gear on cellphone apps or chart-plotting monitors that most fishermen use.
Allowing the pioneers to use the gear in real-world conditions, they add, would provide invaluable insights into what works and what needs work.
“Such experiments are crucial to determining the feasibility of commercial buoyless fishing and can only be done in the closed area when there is no chance of entangling buoyless gear with other fishermen’s traditional gear,” said Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Patrick Ramage, a senior director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said his Yarmouth-based group supports the proposal because “we’re into solutions.”
He described the risk to whales as “negligible” and said the most vocal critics are those lobstermen “least familiar with the gear and least affected by the state closure.”
“This is a lobstermen-led effort strongly supported by top right whale scientists, federal regulators, responsible conservation organizations, and Massachusetts technology companies. Why would DMF say no?” he said. “If we’re going to save right whales and New England lobstermen, we can’t let understandable frustration stifle innovation, it needs to turbo-charge it.”
For the lobstermen pressing the state to approve their proposal, the stakes are high.
Many of them have spent years without income during the closures, and the opportunity to fish with ropeless gear offers the prospect that this could finally change. It’s also a measure of insurance against the possibility that the federal government, to prevent the extinction of right whales, could be required by law to ban the use of buoy lines.
Rob Martin, a lobsterman from Sandwich, and his partner, Lori Caron, have struggled through the closures to cover their expenses, such as mortgage and college-tuition payments.
For that reason, Martin has probably spent more time testing ropeless gear than any other fisherman in the region, while Caron has spent years working with a range of groups to make it possible for lobstermen to use the gear in closed areas.
When Caron, who serves as president of the pioneer group, heard the response from fellow fishermen at the recent hearing, she called it “heartbreaking.”
“Calling these lobstermen selfish is absurd,” she said.
“We know ropeless works,” she added. “This is an opportunity to regain access to a closed area. For those trying to block this, I ask: If not ropeless, tell us what else? The truth is we don’t have another choice.”