Pot and Trap

Whale Safe Gear Innovation

Incorporating new technologies can ensure a sustainable future for pot and trap fisheries AND protect whales.

Whale jumping in Peninsula Valdes,, Patagonia, Argentina
Ashored ropeless gear
Pots and traps are used in a diverse array of fisheries globally, from large industrial fisheries where a single vessel might deploy over 1,000 individual traps to the smallest artisanal fisheries. The largest pot and trap fisheries are among the most economically important fisheries in the world, targeting lobsters and prawns, crabs, and a large variety of fish species. Over the last decade large whales have shifted their summer migratory routes and are now increasingly overlapping with pot and trap fisheries and shipping routes in North America. The hundreds of thousands of vertical lines that attach surface buoys to pots and traps have substantially increased entanglement risks for whales, resulting in increased rates of serious injuries and mortalities from entanglement. Combined with injuries and mortalities from vessel strikes, this threat has drastically increased the number of human-caused whale deaths.
Pot and trap fisheries include some of the most important fisheries in the US and Canada, contributing significant economic value and generating large quantities of seafood for domestic and international consumption. In the state of Maine, the 2021 American lobster catch totaled 108 million pounds and was valued at $725 million USD, while in Canada, the snow crab catch between Newfoundland and Labrador and the Gulf of St Lawrence was valued at $922 million. Other notable fisheries in North America include Canadian lobster, northeast US Jonah Crab, southeast US black sea bass, and west coast Dungeness crab and black cod (sablefish).  

The increase in human-caused whale mortalities has led the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare an Unusual Mortality Event for North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales, and minke whales in the Northern Atlantic and grey whales in the northern Pacific since the start of 2017. This has led to a downgrade in classification of these fisheries from multiple seafood consumer guides and sustainability certifications, creating instability in the market and the lives of seafood harvesters.

Because of this threat, fishing areas are increasingly being closed to traditional gear types. While this can protect whales, fishers suffer when prevented from accessing the fishing grounds where they earn their livelihoods. By participating in trialing new technologies, particularly on-demand gear, through working with FIPs and gear lending libraries, fishers have an opportunity to access closed areas and continue to earn a living amid changing regulations for static rope gear.

Humpback whale breaching.

Gear Lending Libraries

Gear-lending libraries support pot and trap harvesters who are negatively impacted by fishery closures, while also protecting whales from entanglement. These libraries provide access to ropeless gear either free of charge to vessels trained in their use to fish in areas closed to buoy lines, or often with a stipend when vessels volunteer to participate in research and trials conducted to improve the design of ropeless systems.

The gear-lending libraries collect feedback from harvesters trialing the equipment. This feedback is then used to improve the systems so that they can be fished as closely as possible to traditional methods without impacting catch rates.

More information on the four active gear-lending libraries can be found below.

Gear lending programs are designed to support pot and trap harvesters while protecting whales from entanglement. Click on the photos below to go directly to their sites and learn how to get access to this free service.
  • Massachussetts

    Northeast Fisheries Science Center

    The NEFSC gear library has an extensive collection of on-demand systems that they lend to fishermen for testing and feedback used to improve the gear in real fishing conditions in US northeast Atlantic coast fisheries.
  • Nova Scotia, Canada

    CanFISH Gear Lending Program

    The CanFish Program provides on-demand gear and training to snow crab harvesters throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island so fishers can continue to have access to fishing grounds closed due to the presence of whales.
  • California

    Marine Sanctuary Foundation

    The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation gear library in California collaborates with California dungeness crab harvesters to trial and provide feedback on using ropeless systems in real-world fishing conditions.
  • Maine

    Maine Innovative Gear Library

    The Innovative Gear Library provides alternative gears and training for Maine pot and trap harvesters who are likely to be impacted by federal rules that will prohibit the use of traditional buoy lines in areas to protect endangered whales.

Improvement Projects

In addition to participating in gear-lending programs, multiple fisheries have initiated improvement programs that help fishers get access to ropeless systems that they can use to access closed fishing grounds. These programs, organized by fisheries associations and seafood processors, believe in strength in numbers. By including many harvesters, these programs have more power to influence the development and implementation of on-demand gear.

  • Jonah Crab Gear Innovation Project

    Jonah crab is caught off the northeast coast of the United States. Like the larger lobster and snow crab fisheries in the region, this fishery presents an entanglement risk to large whales. This gear innovation project is designed to get ropes out of the water while creating access to closed areas for harvesters.
  • Gulf of St Lawrence Allied Fisheries

    The GOSAF Zone 12 fishery improvement project (FIP) is addressing large whale entanglement risk in the St. Lawrence snow crab fishery by actively trialing new and emerging technologies to reduce entanglement risk.

The Problem - Whale Entanglements

Whale migrations between temperate latitudes in the summer and tropical latitudes in the winter take them across major trap and pot fishing grounds where thousands of vertical buoy lines present entanglement risks. While these migrations always occurred, changes in the routes that whales take moving between their feeding and birthing grounds have increasingly brought them through fishing grounds over the last decade.  This has led to an increase in entanglements with buoy lines that can be difficult for whales to detect in the water.

Break Away Ropes and/or Links
There are two approaches to reduce entanglement risk: developing buoy lines that do not entangle whales and removing buoy lines from the water column when the gear is not being actively tended by fishers. The former has never been successfully demonstrated, while the latter (on-demand fishing) is well on its way to revolutionizing fisheries.

Ropeless system (on the right) with rope coiled inside attached to four traps and ready to be set.  Photo credit: Ashored Innovations

Break Away Ropes and Links

In order for ropes to not entangle whales when swam into, they need to be designed to break when they start to get dragged.  Complicating the process, if the same ropes break when the buoy is being dragged by stormy seas or when the traps are pulled up to the surface, fishers will lose their gear and catch.  This leaves only a narrow range of break pressures that allows fishermen to haul traps while not entangling whales.  In addition, the pressure applied by a swimming whale is only theoretical and will likely vary widely depending on what size whale and how entanglement occurs.  Once the rope is wrapped around the whale, even it segments designed to break do actually break, the rope is unlikely to disentangle.


On-Demand (Ropeless) Fishing

The best way to eliminate entanglement risk is based on the obvious conclusion that if there are no ropes to swim into, whales cannot get entangled.  On-demand systems, “ropeless”, do exactly that.  How do they do this?

Ropeless systems are trap-like cages attached to a string of pots or traps that do not have a buoy line during their deployment.  While the vessel does not have a buoy on the surface that marks where it is underwater, it does have an acoustic device on it that can communicate with the boat.  Typically, all a vessel needs to do is head towards the waypoint that marks where the trap was sent and when it reaches to within a couple kilometers of the ropeless system it ropeless system will tell the boat its exact location.

Most ropeless systems are not actually ropeless, but instead have a rope and buoy stored inside the cage until ready to haul.  At the touch of a button, the captain can call the buoy line which floats to the surface, and the crew can haul the gear just like if it had a traditional buoy line.  There are other types of ropeless systems as well, including a float bag which is inflated underwater, but all are designed to operate in a similar way.

Over years of trialing and fishing by pot and trap fishers, the gear has proven to be more reliable than traditional buoy lines which get moved in storms, break and float away, or get cut by boat propellers.  In fact, a much higher percentage of traps attached to traditional buoy lines gets lost than ropeless, leading to large amounts of abandoned, derelict, and lost fishing gear, and increased ghost fishing and pollution.

Examples of different types of on-demand (ropeless) systems.  Graphic courtesy of NOAA Fisheries.