SANDWICH — For nine years, Rob Martin spent winters with most of his 800 traps stacked in his front yard, struggling to stay solvent over the long three months when regulators closed the region’s lobster fishery to protect critically endangered whales.
Over the years, the 58-year-old lobsterman has attended countless public meetings, pleading with officials to find a way that would allow him and others to resume fishing during those hard months.
Now, after years of controversy, state and federal officials are allowing Martin and more than a dozen other lobstermen to fish in closed areas off Massachusetts. The only caveat: They must use a new kind of fishing gear that uses limited amounts of rope and aims to eliminate the threat that lobstering poses to North Atlantic right whales.
“There are people who are scared to do this, and it’s not for everyone,” said Martin, who in recent weeks has been fishing a quarter of his traps with the new gear. “But this is paving the way to the future.”
In 2021, as part of a federal plan to protect right whales, state officials expanded a ban on lobster fishing in Cape Cod Bay to include most Massachusetts waters in winter months when right whales typically feed in the region. The closures start on Feb. 1 and go through early May, or until the whales move on to other feeding grounds.
With the population of right whales estimated to have plunged by about 30 percent over the past decade — there are now believed to be fewer than 350 of them, including fewer than 70 reproductive females — a series of rulings by federal judges in recent years has forced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to do more to protect the endangered species.
Ropes that rise from lobster traps on the sea floor to buoys on the surface are a leading cause of death and serious injury to right whales. The ropes often ensnare them, inflict grievous lacerations, and cause stress that can deplete the energy they need to reproduce.
Last November, as scientists warned that an accelerating decline in the population was threatening the species with extinction, a federal judge ordered the agency to implement more protections, including a possible ban on vertical buoy lines, by the end of next year.
Congress later delayed implementation until 2028, but lobstermen fear new rules could mean the end of traditional lobster fishing in New England, which employs more than 5,000 fishermen, whose catch was valued at $925 million in 2021.
In an effort to allow lobstermen to keep fishing without harming the whales, federal regulators last month began seeking volunteers to take part in a new program that allows them to fish in restricted areas with whale-safe fishing gear. That so-called ropeless, or on-demand, gear uses inflatable balloons and bags of rope that raise traps to the surface when triggered by lobstermen with a cellphone app.
“We need solutions to mitigate entanglement and other risks, and this is one of the solutions,” said Henry Milliken, a research fisheries biologist at the agency’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, who’s overseeing efforts to introduce the new gear to the lobster fishery in Massachusetts.
In recent years, NOAA has outfitted several lobstermen with the on-demand gear for testing. But this is the first time the agency is allowing them to fish and sell their catch during the annual closure. They can only fish in specific areas approved by NOAA.
In exchange, Martin and the other lobstermen have agreed to supply NOAA with a range of data about how the gear is working. So far, that data suggests the process of raising and retrieving the gear has been improving.
In 2020, when the agency began testing on-demand systems, lobstermen retrieved them successfully 74 percent of the time; last year, that success rate increased to 91 percent, Milliken said.
But a range of challenges remain.
Sometimes, especially in heavier seas, lobstermen can’t find the traps after they surface, their inflated balloons or buoys veiled by waves or fog.
The most significant challenge remains the cost, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars per boat. But proponents of on-demand fishing expect the federal government will ultimately subsidize much of the costs for the new gear. So far, NOAA, working with several private contractors developing the gear, has loaned the on-demand systems to the region’s lobstermen for free.
The other major challenge is ensuring that other fishermen have a way of knowing the locations of on-demand lobster traps, so that those who drag nets or dredges along the sea floor don’t pull up the traps. For now, lobstermen are using a cellphone app to see where they or other lobstermen set their traps, but those apps require an Internet connection — which isn’t always reliable at sea — and many draggers don’t know about the app.
Those and other concerns have driven many lobstermen to oppose on-demand fishing.
Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said he has “grave concerns” about regulators allowing lobstermen to fish with the experimental gear in closed areas.
“This approach will create highly unproductive, unhelpful, and unnecessary conflicts within the local lobster fishery, and between the lobster fishery and [NOAA,]” he said.
He said the testing would spark greater opposition to on-demand fishing, contending it “exacerbates the economic harm to non-participants.”
Milliken said he wants to bring more lobstermen into the testing program and ultimately hopes to expand it to restricted fishing areas off Maine, where state officials have prohibited on-demand fishing. The agency now has enough on-demand gear to outfit 30 vessels.
“If fishermen are going to be pushed out of these areas to protect right whales, it’s important that they have a tool to get back into closed areas to maintain their economic viability,” Milliken said.
In Massachusetts, regulators last year rejected a proposal from Martin and other lobstermen to use on-demand gear in closed areas, saying their plan “lack[ed] a study design that will contribute meaningfully to further understanding the efficacy of ropeless fishing.”
But now, officials at the state Division of Marine Fisheries have reversed their position, which they attributed to NOAA overseeing the effort.
The state has approved five vessels to use on-demand gear in state waters.
In explaining why he changed his mind, Dan McKiernan, director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, said, “More technology development and testing is warranted.”
Right whales have died in greater numbers in recent years as the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine led to a collapse in certain areas of their primary food source, rice-sized copepods, forcing them into waters where there were few regulations to protect them.
Whale advocates, who for years have been calling on federal and state officials to allow lobstermen to use on-demand gear in restricted areas, said they were hopeful that the approval of the new testing program would lead to wider use of the technology.
Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, which helped raise money for the new gear, called the approval of on-demand fishing “groundbreaking.”
She noted that the new testing comes as Congress has authorized spending $500 million over the coming decade for NOAA to develop new fishing technology, including $20 million this year for new gear to reduce entanglement risks to right whales.
“We can’t throw in the towel on right whales, because behind them come another species, and another, and another,” Fuller said.
For lobstermen testing the gear, the advances over the past few years have been significant.
Marc Palombo, another Sandwich lobsterman who has been working with NOAA to test the on-demand gear, said the technology has improved to the point that he’s now “excited about the future.”
“To the naysayers, I tell them: Try it,” he said. “You’ll be surprised.”