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Ropeless Lobster Fishing Is Good News For Endangered Whales

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The North Atlantic right whale is in danger of extinction. One of the main threats is entanglement in lobster fishing ropes. Now a new ropeless fishing technology is being tested to save both the whales and the lobster industry. From member station WCAI, Eve Zuckoff reports.

EVE ZUCKOFF, BYLINE: After three decades of fishing for lobsters in Cape Cod Bay, Rob Martin knows his boat, the Resolve, inside and out.

ROB MARTIN: It's only 40 feet. It was big when I first got it, but now it seems small.

ZUCKOFF: It's a cold morning, and we're heading out to check on his traps, which he dropped on the sea floor about a half mile outside the Cape Cod canal. Like lobstermen here have done for hundreds of years, Martin used to check his traps by looking for buoys that are connected by ropes to the traps. But now his buoys are gone, and he's about to test a ropeless fishing system.

MARTIN: So everything's ready to go.

ZUCKOFF: Martin opens up an app on his phone and sends an acoustic signal to his lobster traps 50 feet underwater.

MARTIN: I'm hitting release command. Release.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

MARTIN: Success. OK.

ZUCKOFF: Somewhere down below, an air tank inside a trap is inflating a balloon. And then the moment we've been waiting for even gets this landlubbing (ph) radio reporter pretty excited.

MARTIN: Oh, there it is.

ZUCKOFF: Oh, that is so cool.

A long, bright orange balloon pops up out of the water. It looks like one of those blow-up tubes that bobs around outside a car dealership. By using this technology, Martin has eliminated the need for vertical ropes and the danger that a right whale diving for food might get tangled in rope. Scientists say 80% of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from entanglement in the deadly maze created of lobstermen's rope and other fishing lines they encounter on their migration routes. Because of these dangers to the nearly 370 right whales in existence, authorities have instituted seasonal fishing closures in waters off New England. Many lobstermen prefer the closures to the technological leap they would have to make to adopt ropeless fishing.

BETH CASONI: The technology is like - we're at the Model T today, and people expect us to be at the Tesla tomorrow.

ZUCKOFF: This is Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. She also says the cost is prohibitive. Ropeless gear could cost a single fisherman up to $70,000. And she says it may be unsafe because without buoys on the surface, fishing boats that drag nets along the seafloor can get caught on lobstermen's traps.

CASONI: We need a large-scale, scientific, unbiased feasibility study on the whole thing.

ZUCKOFF: Despite these challenges, lobsterman Rob Martin wants to keep carrying out his federally funded tests for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass. After all, he's catching lobsters.

MARTIN: That's a female with eggs - has to get thrown back.

ZUCKOFF: And Martin says he understands the stakes. If right whales keep dying at current rates, the species could reach a point in the next 20 years beyond which it can't recover. And if regulators shut down the entire lobster fishery in order to save the critically endangered whales, lobstermen could face their own kind of extinction.

For NPR News, I'm Eve Zuckoff on Cape Cod.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE APPLES IN STEREO SONG, "PINE AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.