Coastal Community & Cetacean Conservation through Innovation
I am a published researcher and Fulbright Award recipient with degrees focused in Pathobiology & Animal Science and Allied Health Science from the University of Connecticut. I am seeking a graduate program based in these interests, with a preferred focus on marine and cetacean conservation and epidemiology. Retired Paramedic. Skilled in Emergency Management, One Health Initiative, Disaster Management, Microbiology, Virology, Immunology, Marine Mammalogy, Genetics, Public Health and Safety, Epidemiology, Incident Command, and Emergency Medicine. I am a lover of the ocean and all of its inhabitants. I am fascinated by the use of technology, imagination, and innovation when used as tools to remediate and prevent further destruction of our planet and its invaluable resources.
I arrived home Wednesday morning at 530am after another sixty straight days of ropeless research. Another 4,000 miles on the car, and tracing the nearly exact migration path of a North Atlantic right whale. And while we worked with some of the most experienced and creative pot fishers on the East Coast, the news of two more entangled right whales reached us.
The feelings I go through when another entanglement is reported, in order: sadness, anger, then frustration. After about a day, those feelings settle into a doubling down of determination. It was a new experience for our team to be together, and actively fishing with the gear when this news broke. As heartbreaking as it was, we found a renewed sense of purpose and a reserve of energy that pushed us through the last back-breaking weeks of work. The video below was a product of this process, and all the credit goes to Joel Cohen and videographer, Brad Sawicki. They are not only incredibly resourceful around a boat, but also pretty handy with a camera!
While there are larger, more influential groups researching these gears, we are proud of the way we operate. Our data collection is swift, certain, and powered by one of the most brilliant minds we know, Virgil Zetterlind. Our methods and preparation are second to none. Our desire for understanding and communicating with those whose livelihoods are being directly impacted by the co-occurrence of North Atlantic right whales and pot fisheries is earnest and appreciated. We work hard, all hours of the day and night, for no pay, because we believe that we can make a difference.
You can, too.
We have family, friends, and colleagues that support us with words, actions, and even donations…Without them, this trip would have been impossible. We are always looking for volunteers and partners to help us in this mission. With COVID times upon us, many aren’t able to come haul traps and pots with us in other states, or mount cameras on gear or in traps, or pack bait, or fill ice…but we will gladly hold that spot for you next time.
Here is an amazing video made for us by the Ullapool Sea Savers Ropeless Fishing Ambassador, Caillin, about fishing “entanglement free!”
Fisherwoman Barbie is part of a fantastic set of to-scale models that accompany us on our global outreach missions. These functional models of both gear, whales, and humans help make the issue more accessible to people while being much easier to pack!
Happy Birthday, Caillin!! The whales and fishermen thank you so much!!
They spent all day hands-on with the gear from FioMarine, EdgeTech, and Desert Star Systems familiarizing themselves with the basic operation and set up of each system. Joel Cohen was an avid learner and even volunteered to help with the May 28th demonstration to key stakeholders in the South Atlantic Region, and Georgia DNR staff. Other guests were invited to attend via livestream.
Quick recap of the devices demonstrated on May 27th:
This will be followed by a post-demonstration survey and is the same form fishers fill out for our research team. It takes about 5 minutes.
As some of you experienced, we had some doubts about our ability to pull off our first ever livestreaming presentation, which is certainly why we knew it was a good plan to have a stationary camera with a professional audio set up as a backup. Georgia coastal photographer and aerial videographer, William Harrell, donated his time to help document the day and create a more professional version of the demonstration video for us. Staff at Sustainable Seas performed post-production editing of multiple formats of media to create a shorter version of the demonstration for viewers.
We would like to take a moment to thank all of the volunteers who generously gave of their time and talents this week:
Virgil Zetterlind and Deanna Richburg of Conserve.iO who came all the way from Clearwater to share their contributions to the ropeless research being done globally. Currently, their Whale Alert, Ocean Alert, Sharktivity, and Spotter Apps are used across the country to collect vital opportunistic sightings of many of our protected and endangered species. We are so fortunate to have their tireless support for our work here in Georgia.
An enormous thank you to Julie Albert and Joel Cohen from the Marine Resources Council for donating a week of their time to drive up from Florida to learn everything they could about ropeless fishing, to demonstrate it, and to invite others to share in that process. It is always inspiring to see how much genuine enthusiasm grows in people when teaching them how to rig and deploy these gears, and how quickly they learn to do it on their own.
Quick recap of the devices demonstrated on May 28th:
There was one question from Jamison Smith regarding how far away one can be from the units and have them receive a signal from the transducer. I answer in the video in a more lengthy response but checked my data for this post and the farthest distance I have recorded so far was 904 meters, or 0.5617 miles on December 22, 2019 with a Desert Star ARC-1 in 120 meters of water. The distance from transducer to buoy when it rose was 896 meters.
For those with the invite-only password, please enter it below to view the video. To request the password, sign up to follow our work and it will be emailed to you.
There are more than one million vertical lines off the North American coast of the Atlantic Ocean used by the lobster and crab fishing industry (Hayes et al., 2018). Pot/trap fishing gear, specifically the vertical lines attached to traps, poses an ongoing danger to both mariners and marine mammals, such as right whales.
In fact, entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of death for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (NARW), Eubalaena glacialis. With an estimated population of about 400 individuals and only 100 breeding-age females, the species lies on the brink of extinction (Pettis et al., 2020, NOAA, 2019a). Since June 2017, thirty right whales have died, nearly twice as many as the previous five years (NOAA, 2020).
Since 1986, researchers and fisheries managers have identified geographic areas “of special concern” with regard to entanglements of right whales: the Gulf of Maine (ME), the Georges Bank (MA), and the Great South Channel (MA), which are also home to the American lobster and a robust commercial pot/trap fishery (Prescott and Best, 1986). In the past five years, entanglement has also been an increasing concern in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, related to their snow crab fishery (Daoust et al., 2017). Of the right whales remaining, 85 percent have been entangled at least once, and over 50 percent show signs of having been entangled more than once (Knowlton et al., 2012; Pettis et al., 2020). These entanglements not only lead to whale deaths but also decrease whales’ ability to produce calves, further endangering the species (Sharp et al., 2019).
Despite the recognition of gear entanglements as a significant threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, efforts to modify gear, such as sinking ground lines and weak links, have not eliminated this threat.(Myers et al., 2019) The most effective way to reduce or eliminate fisheries-related entanglements and mortality would be to reduce lobster fishing in the same geographic areas as marine animals, a principle known as “reduction of effort” (Smolowitz, 1978b). Any reduction in the number of buoys, endlines, and traps would lead to a reduction in entanglements, gear loss, and navigational hazards (Smolowitz, 1978a; Johnson, 2000; Macfadyen et al., 2009).
Introducing ropeless fishing gear is the natural solution: it would reduce vertical lines in the water without reducing lobster fishing, particularly in the areas of concern. Ropeless fishing gear is an innovative technology that removes the need for buoys and vertical lines in the water, except during active retrieval. The gear combines regular pot/trap fishing with a sophisticated acoustic release system that allows fishermen to retrieve their gear without the need of a vertical line and buoy connecting the trap to the surface.
The concept of ropeless gear for pot/trap fishing was first introduced in 1998 when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued its first contract to develop an acoustic release system (DeAlteris, 1999). Subsequently, ropeless fishing developed and multiple innovative and viable systems were created. In fact, after more than 20 years of innovation and sustained research, and thanks to both private and federal funding, many technological developments have moved the market forward from what was merely a theoretical concept to a real solution to marine mammal entanglements.
-Kim Sawicki is a Fulbright-Schuman Program Alumni affiliated with the University of Connecticut, the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and the Marine Institute in the Republic of Ireland. In addition to her ongoing research, the author fosters informed discussion of coastal community and cetacean conservation through innovation on her website, Sustainable Seas. Since November 2018, she has served as a liaison between eight underwater technology companies and entrepreneurs that have mature products or are actively developing ropeless technologies. She is a volunteer for the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, and the State of Connecticut’s Region 4 Incident Management Team (since 2010). She is one of the founding members of the Irish Entanglement Alliance, and with the guidance of the gear manufacturers listed within the report, she advised the New England Fishery Management Council’s (NEFMC) gear research group on the standardization of research methodologies for ropeless. Currently, she is involved in ongoing research in Georgia, Ireland, and the UK on the implementation of ropeless fishing technologies and recently completed a pilot study with Scottish creel fishers.
A fundraiser organized by Sustainable Seas to benefit the Large Whale Disentanglement Team of British Divers Marine Life Rescue. Photos and videos were provided courtesy of BDMLR staff and volunteers, Kim Sawicki of Sustainable Seas, and Nick McCaffrey of South Spear Media.
Fishing gear designed to protect whales from entanglement is being trialled off Scotland’s coast.
Whales can become caught in rope that runs between shellfish creels on the seabed to a buoy on the surface.
The new “ropeless creels” have this main line in a container along with a buoy and these are lowered to the seabed with the creels.
The buoy is released electronically and rises to the surface, bringing the rope with it so the creels can be retrieved.
The technology is being developed initially for fisheries in the US and Canada where endangered North Atlantic right whales have died in entanglements.
Those involved in the trials, including the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) – a coalition of conservation groups, rescue teams and fishermen – say Scotland’s coast offers ideal conditions for testing ropeless creels.
Scientist Kim Sawicki, who is working on the US-EU funded research, said: “Right now a lot of fisheries are suffering closures both in the US and Canada due to entanglement issues with cetaceans, particularly the North Atlantic right whale.
“Fishermen are losing money and are not able to feed their families.”
The researcher said creel fishing in the Gulf of Maine alone could involve one million main lines.
“A group of manufacturers have come together to design systems that store the rope at depth so that it is not a risk to whales,” she added.
Creel fishing usually involves lowering a fleet of 30 to 50 weighted-down pots to the seabed. The pots are strung together on rope and the last creel has a line going from it to a buoy on the surface.
The buoy aids in the retrieval of the creels, but also acts as a marker to other fishermen to where the gear is.
Bally Philip, a Kyle of Lochalsh-based creel fisherman working with the project in Scotland, said the project team was taking on board fishermen’s suggested improvements to the ropeless system.
He said: “We use the buoy to see where the gear is, so we need to develop the corresponding tracking system and also a way of advising other fishermen to where the ‘ropeless’ gear is. All that has still to be developed.
“But there is a real urgency to develop this stuff because all around the world there are places where endangered species are getting entangled in fishing gear.”
She said that in the past year in Scotland, there had been about 12 incidents of entanglements with two as classed as “chronic” due to the injuries caused to the animals involved.
She added: “Fishermen want to help. They work alongside these large animals and are devastated when an entanglement happens.”
A very very huge thank you to Iain and Brian for coming out to share our story!You can learn more about the entanglement issue in Scotland by clicking on one of the links below!
One of the most critical aspects to the objective collection and analysis of data requires that bias be eliminated wherever and whenever possible. This means testing the gear in locations where conditions, both sea and social, present no obstacles to fishers providing feedback on design and applicability to their practices.
To ensure the continued success of a co-management approach to fisheries practices, priority needs to be given to the design of more thoughtful experimental trials that allow the technology alone to be reviewed. To date, gear testing, trials, and demonstrations have not been conducted in a standardized manner, making data difficult to review and reach scientific consensus. It is essential to create a proficient methodology considering the equipment, preparation, deployment, and retrieval of the gear, which can only be accomplished through collaboration between researchers, gear developers, and fishermen.
Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing all of the feedback from those involved in the Scottish creel ropeless fishing survey as a series of separate posts. I will focus on different aspects of the survey each week to allow for thoughtful processing by others of their comments and observations and would encourage any and all respectful feedback be submitted by others.
Fishers have confidence in themselves and others to Learn & usE ropeless technology
These results are from anonymous survey conducted with eight Scottish creel fishermen, seven of who had trialed and/or actively fished with two ropeless fishing devices (Fiomarine’s Fiobuoy® and Desert Star Systems, ARC-1,) and this researcher. (September 2019-January 2020.) The eighth fisher was educated on the systems, but was not able to trial the gears, and the ninth participant was a marine biologist who was invited by a fisher to participate in ropeless training who is also a member of British Diver’s Marine Life Rescue (disentanglement team) who actively worked the gears with a fisher.
Because the cost of ropeless retrieval technology has been widely discussed in most previous trials that fishermen have participated in, it was not a primary focus of this outreach effort. In fact, many of the comments from past published surveys, research, reports, and articles surrounding the testing of gear pertain to cost, indicating that fishers knew that the technology represented an additional cost to them. While transparency is vital to maintaining trusting relationships between researchers and fishermen, this repetitive discussion of cost likely has led to a negative bias on survey and study results. Finally, fishers have expressed a reluctance participate in surveys or testing (not just related to ropeless) and unintentionally advance new or restrictive regulations to their fishery.
Instead, during these trials, the researcher chose to discuss the costs affiliated with fishing with end lines and buoys, and how gear loss effects fishers and the general public in a variety of ways prior to any discussion of prices per unit.
What did Fishers have to say about the gear?
The following statements are offered as a sample of the feedback received. Overall, the qualitative data affirmed technical success and identified ongoing challenges:
“I was really impressed…A few wee tweaks, I think it would be ready to go really. There’s all these little subtleties, but once you get the hang of it, there’s not much to it
“We’ve seen six bits of gear, mostly buoys, on the shore right here; I’d argue if it was ropeless, there wouldn’t be any.”
“The obvious advantage is removing the whole entanglement issue, but also for us, we lose quite a lot of gear here, to either other fishermen or boats, and we get our gear dragged about quite a bit by the weather, so if the buoys are deep enough, those things aren’t issues at all. Sometimes, with big swell, the buoys will pick up the last creel, and it walks up the fleet and picks up the next creel, so you end up with this ball of creels, picking up the next as they go. If you had ropeless gear, that wouldn’t be an issue.”
An Introduction to DEVELOPING, MAINTAINING, AND LEVERAGING SUSTAINABLY MINDED CONSUMERS to Care about Ropeless Fishing…
At the 2019 Seafood Expo: North America, Globescan presented “What Consumers Really Want: The Future of Sustainable Seafood.” Associate Director, Abbie Curtis O’Reilly informed several hundred industry stakeholders on a through survey done of North American seafood consumers (n=10,477) which found that 67% believe that seafood consumption should come only from sustainable sources, while 81% agree that seafood supplies need to be protected for future generations. It was also discovered that “pollution of the oceans is the most concerning ocean issue” for consumers, followed by overfishing.
When pressed further, 70% of those asked (n=4,155) stated they would like to hear more from their seafood suppliers of choice on the sustainability of their products.
Perhaps then, a goal for future marketing for suppliers could stress how they address the issue of both marine debris as well as ghost fishing. This will help illustrate the benefits ropeless fishing has to the environment, which in turn, can help make it more important to today’s consumers of seafood. Not everyone may know that fishing presents a danger to whales, but everyone these days knows how full of trash our oceans are. (Morris et al., 2018)
Further, she offered a plan to engage consumers in acting on their beliefs when purchasing products that are sustainably sourced. There are four key steps to this approach;
Educate – use popular channels to maintain a high awareness of ocean sustainability issues.
Equip – people care about independent certification, but lack awareness of ecolabels when shopping.
Excite – messaging ensuring protection of fish for future generations can help to inspire.
Engage – the power of partnerships is key to engaging the mainstream. (Morris et al., 2018)
Of equal importance is networking and engagement with the seafood wholesalers, dealers, retailers, and restaurant industry representatives. Alliances with organizations such as Sea Pact and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership will be critical to ensuring that ropeless fishing technology and the vast improvements it can offer pot and trap fishing to reach higher sustainability goals are well-understood and communicated within industry.
Why is this important for ropeless fishing?
Fishers are justifiable exhausted by the many measures they have been forced to undertake over the last two decades, at great expense to themselves, and with seemingly little or no benefit to whales. (Pace et al, 2014) None of these measures have been proven to reduce death or severe injury.
For those of us who fight for these technologies to be given a chance and further developed, the onus lies with us to now demonstrate not only a conservation need for these gears, but desire from consumers to support this type of fishing. This change requires a major restructuring of thought, a reorganization on deck of gear, and a substantial collaborative effort of all stakeholders, with priority given to funding for gear.
Kim Sawicki- November, 2019
This article was taken largely from a document that highlights the findings in the aforementioned presentation, an altered form of that presentation was found to share with this audience. Questions may be addressed to the author, or directly to the contact listed below.
An interview with Fulbright Fellow Kim Sawicki published November 20, 2019 by Francine Kershaw
Meet Kim Sawicki, an American scientist currently living and working in Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship. Her goal? To advance the development of ropeless technology and help bring about its regular use in pot and trap fisheries around the world. Kim’s vision is to end whale entanglements while also preserving the fishing communities she works with. Here, Kim shares some insights into her work…
What is ropeless gear and what inspired you to work on advancing this technology?
In July of 2018, while in search of a sponsor for my PhD work, I met with Dr. Michael Moore of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I will never forget when he drew for me a trawl of pots book-ended in vertical lines and buoys and expressed to me that the greatest threat to the incredibly endangered North Atlantic right whales existed within those endlines. He told me if there was something as an epidemiologist I really wanted to do to help truly make a difference for whales, it would be to address this issue through the research and improvement of ropeless fishing gear. This is how I tell people I was “roped into ropeless research.” So began my mission to understand ropeless technology and help bring about its adaptation for commercial use in pot and trap fisheries around the world.
Ropeless fishing gear, or ASBRS (Acoustic Subsea Buoy Retrieval Systems) as I like to call them, includes any device that allows for storage of buoys, rope, or lift bags to be stored at depth where they present little or no threat of interaction with whales. These items are stored alongside the first trap in a fleet or trawl of traps and triggered acoustically—like remotely opening a car door—only when a fisher is nearby and ready to haul their fishing gear. This greatly reduces the time that the line and/or buoy are in the water column and presenting a threat to whales or other marine animals.
As a scientist working with engineers, how do you approach developing ropeless gear?
Just like any innovation or invention, there’s a period of testing, customization, and adjustment that must be done. This topic always brings to my mind the invention of the cellular phone and the super tiny and incredibly powerful ones that we have now compared to the bulky suitcase models we had a few decades ago. It’s true that we can’t see the “lines” that attach our phones now, as with landlines, but that doesn’t limit their power or ability to give us the information we need.
This period of adjustment is particularly important for a ropeless device because the approach and technique of every fisher is individual. Also, conditions in different geographic locations present different challenges for every fishing community, so these gears need to be adaptable (which they are!). This also means fishers need to have an attitude of collaboration when they agree to try fishing with these new methods.
One of the things I like to talk to fishers about is “taking the gear out and breaking it.” To us, this means testing how durable it is and how we can best challenge its functionality to make further versions of the technology better and as unbreakable as possible. The ingenuity of fishers and their enthusiasm for trying something new is the most important part of designing something for their use. The creativity and inspiration that I get to experience from them, firsthand, is pretty hard to forget.
Many of the fishers I’ve worked with have been excited and motivated to try something new that will help them reduce their amount of gear loss. I’ve also worked with people who have been directly affected by entanglements; either finding deceased animals in their gear or in the gear of others. It’s been clear to me that, while rare, these occurrences have a meaningful impact on them as humans. I find many of those fishers are even more motivated than their peers to try to help solve this problem and care less about their own gear loss than the life of the animal.
What has been your experience working with ropeless engineers and manufacturers?
For over a year I have collaborated with a large group of ropeless gear manufacturers and engineers to help streamline the testing process as well as the data we collect during it. Every single one of them set aside their own personal and commercial objectives to work together for the benefit of these animals. Something else that I find really inspiring is their willingness to work together to show the interoperability of their systems. They meet regularly with each other, both virtually and in person, to investigate opportunities for collaboration to help prove ropeless fishing as a concept worldwide, and have also shared valuable private internal data with me to help answer many of the questions both fisheries managers and fishers have about their gear.
What are some of the perceived barriers to the success of ropeless gear?
One of the greatest stated concerns for all is the perceived economic cost of ropeless fishing gear. This could be addressed in its own article, but I truly feel that at the heart of this reluctance to adapt is the fear fisher’s experience over a potential loss of control of their local community resource.
Fishing communities all over the world are able to self-police and regulate outsiders and those who do not adhere to local “gentlemen’s agreements” or customs. The loss of the simplest method of self-policing, a colored buoy or buoys at the sea surface, seemingly removes a fisher’s ability to ensure the future of their own catch. To me, this is completely understandable, but absolutely addressable with the use of virtual gear marking through software integration.
Other issues such as mobile gear interaction and overlayment (i.e., setting a trawl over another person’s gear) can be resolved by use of virtual gear marking and vessel tracking technologies, as well as certain areas being deemed “for use by pot fishers only,” which is currently visually designated by the buoys that sit on the sea surface. Ropeless gear will also make it easier to locate pots and traps that have been dragged along the seabed by ocean currents or other types of fishing gear like trawls. This will reduce the amount of lost fishing gear, which represents an economic burden to fishermen, as well as the amount of marine debris overall.
At the end of the day, all of those less-than-desirable mobile and fixed-gear interactions will likely never be wholly resolved, nor those that are caused by local territorial conflicts; not with visual buoys, regulations, nor with software. But the use of ropeless gear could absolutely reduce risk to other mariners posed by buoys that float at the surface, the overall amount of marine debris, as well as the amount of ghost fishing by lost pots or traps.
What’s next on the horizon for ropeless gear?
Ropeless gear testing is currently underway in extreme environments such as the North Sea, Cape Cod, and Canada to test the upper limits of functionality of these gears. We are taking it out and “trying to break it” as much as possible to build these gears up to be as strong and reliable as necessary in any fishery in the world. This is something that is absolutely vital if we are to advance these solutions for future widespread adoption.
Additionally, six manufacturers have been working together to demonstrate how ropeless gear can be used to fish within an area that currently is closed to fishing due to potential risks to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The manufacturer’s collaborative approach to meet this goal, which required the setting aside of competitive interests, really shows their commitment not just to saving whales, but also to ensuring the financial viability of fishers and their communities.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kim Sawicki is an American scientist currently living and working in Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship. Her work is in collaboration with the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and the Marine Institute (Republic of Ireland). Her nine-month independent research project requires her to travel along the coasts of both countries to work in close contact with entanglement experts, pathologists, engineers, policy makers, and fishing communities. Her past experience working as a public health professional in emergency & disaster medicine cultivated in her a passion for epidemiology and Pathobiology. After earning dual degrees in Pathobiology & Veterinary Science and Allied Health Sciences, she made the decision to apply her knowledge and energy to the study of cetacean epidemiology. Her current work focuses on trauma-induced mortalities, namely those involving entanglement in fishing gear. She recently co-founded “Sustainable Seas”, a group focused on empowering individuals, fishing communities, and conservationists to engage in productive and non-judgmental dialogue to help reduce cetacean mortalities. She is dedicated to working with innovative technology, fishers, and engineers to save marine mammals from unnecessary anthropogenic deaths, and to preserve coastal fishing communities as they are.
Contributing authors and collaborators: James A.R. McFarlane, Michael Shegog, John Fiotakis, Rich Riels, Jacob Wolf, Maxwell Poole, Aaron Stevenson, Marco Flagg, Robert Morris, Michael Stocker, Hannah Myers, Edward Wyman,Cormac Hondros-MacCarthy, Ted Zhu, Russ Mullins.
Author’s Note: In the interest of hastening the continued progress of ropeless fishing, in November of 2018, eight companies that have either a mature product or are actively developing ropeless technologies formed an informal working group after the Ropeless Consortium meeting trough which they collaborate and share data through a central researcher. The author and Fulbright student, affiliated with the University of Connecticut, the University of St. Andrews, and the Marine Institute, has functioned as a liaison for information gathering to answer many of the questions posed by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction team. That data can be viewed in the full version of this document, available below.
The opinions, calculations, and summary points are those of the author, only, but were the result of conversations, data sharing, and collaboration with many of the above listed parties. Several of the above mentioned parties were directly quoted in this report and are being listed as coauthors or collaborators.