For Kim Sawicki, the issue of props being fouled in crab and lobster pot lines has been personal for years. She grew up sailing in Connecticut, where her job was to spend endless hours sitting on the bow as the lookout. And, about 20 years ago, friends of hers aboard a 47-foot Pacemaker could’ve been killed after entangled lobster-pot lines pulled the boat’s props together.

“The lines basically split the boat in half and it sank, right in Long Island Sound, off of Stonington, Connecticut,” Sawicki says, adding that her friends did make it to safety. “It took five minutes. People don’t realize it can happen that fast.”

Today, Sawicki is the founder of Connecticut-based Sustainable Seas, which she created in 2018 to promote the use of technology for pot and trap fishing—including ropeless gear that lets fishermen set and recall traps designed without any vertical lines. Lawmakers and regulators are discussing this type of technology at the federal level as well as in several states. In California, a bill that would require such gear was introduced in February, and in Massachusetts, the Division of Marine Fisheries began a one-year study in January about the gear’s feasibility in New England fisheries.

Traditionally, the types of lines that torment boaters have connected buoys at the surface to a series of traps on the seafloor, allowing fishermen to haul their catch. With a ropeless system, time-release or on-demand technology is used to trigger the traps so that they float to the surface. The fishermen can retrieve their catch without using any vertical lines at all.

“The whole idea with ropeless is to use tools that have been around since the 1950s and ’60s. It’s called a pop-up,” Sawicki says.

Kim Sawicki founded Sustainable Seas, the organization helping to develop the ropeless technology currently being tested in New England fisheries.

Kim Sawicki founded Sustainable Seas, the organization helping to develop the ropeless technology currently being tested in New England fisheries.

Using this ropeless technology to remove vertical lines from fisheries—especially ones where critically endangered species such as North Atlantic right whales can become trapped—has become a prominent mission for conservationists and others who want to protect the animals. While boaters all understand the frustration of fouled props, it’s the whales whose plight is being highlighted in governmental efforts. During the first three months of this year, NOAA Fisheries accepted public comment on proposed new rules to decrease the number of right whales tangled in fishing gear. The California bill, which was in limbo as this issue went to press, is called the Whale Entanglement Prevention Act; and the Massachusetts study cites whale entanglements as a top concern.

While research on ropeless gear has focused on the mitigation of risk to endangered marine life, there is still a lot to learn about the technological, legal and regulatory ecosystems of ropeless gear, as well as operational and economic unknowns for the region’s fishermen and coastal communities, according to the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries advisory. Many of those unknowns boil down to concerns about money, Sawicki says. Pop-up trap technology can cost anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars, she says.The tech was originally designed for placing oceanographic instruments on the seafloor, and has not yet been mass-produced in a lower-cost way for the types of uses fishermen would need, especially at deeper depths.

Thus, pushback against the new technology from the commercial fishing community has been, at times, fierce. It also has included complaints about the possibility of the technology failing and catch being lost.

“These new regulations will destroy our businesses, lives and coastal communities,” a lobsterman from Maine wrote in a public comment about the proposed changes in federal regulations. “Ropeless fishing is too expensive and time consuming, and it fails to deploy 25 percent of the time.”

Sawicki says fishermen’s concerns about mandatory use of ropeless traps are valid—so much so that she and several manufacturers of the technology wrote letters opposing the California bill, which was a blanket proposal instead of one targeted at areas where right whales are known to be. The goal should not be to mandate total, immediate use of gear that local crabbers and lobstermen cannot
afford, she says.

“Most of the guys will be put out of business. All of the effort will shift
offshore to big, big, $2 million and $3 million boats, and all the cute coastal towns will be just artist havens, coffee shops and vacation towns,” she says.

Instead, she says, manufacturers are working on improving the technology at the same time lawmakers and regulators are debating how and where it might best be used. For instance, she says, competing manufacturers are now working together to alleviate concerns about different traps from different fishermen ending up in the same spot without anyone knowing it. “It means people fishing with different brands of gear will be able to see where other gear is, so they don’t accidentally put their gear on top of somebody else’s,” she says.

Sawicki adds that while it’s possible to envision a world where boaters have no prop-fouling worries because every single trap on the planet is ropeless, the more realistic outcome is a gradual adoption of the technology by about 2030. “That gives the manufacturers time to get these devices to a place where they can be mass-produced,” she says. “That’s the only thing that’s holding us up.”

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue.

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