The Need for Harmony

Ropeless Gear Testing Protocols


Mark Baumgartner’s presentation at the 2019 Ropeless Consortium meeting in Portland, ME inspired me to focus my fieldwork efforts on three key points he made regarding ropeless gear testing.

Dockside Trainings September, 2020. Credit J. Albert

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

“Ropeless gear needs to be safe for fishermen to use and safe for whales.”-M. Baumgartner

I have spent two years working directly with nearly all of the ropeless gear manufacturers to conduct hundreds of dock, inshore, and offshore trials of their products with fishers. Before any introduction to ropeless gear onboard a vessel commences, I spend time observing the regular daily workings of boats in the fishery I am working within. My observations and resultant questions are posed to individual fishers in an effort to create a research design that is both safe for researchers and fishers, as well as functional for effective data collection. I use a strict tiered protocol that involves researchers and fishers learning the gear dockside, then teaching its use to others, and finally progressing to a level of “mastery.” Once I am confident they can work without mentor observation on the dock, they progress to learning on vessels. This tiered approach is then repeated onboard fishing vessels while underway. Once they progress to on-board mastery, they are free to work independently and without safety lines when the boat is functioning in a research capacity, while additional and concurrent tasks are added, such as virtual gear marking. Finally, a third tier of mastery is reached during normal fishing activities. Until this level of mastery is reached, I feel an individual is not truly proficient in using ropeless gear in a fisheries application, which could lead to discouragement of use by fishermen, a belief of inefficacy, unsafe fishing practices, added risk to marine mammals, and the loss of the device and/or fishing gear.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

“Testing of ropeless gear should be done by an independent third-party working directly with fishermen that have been properly trained to use the gear.” -M. Baumgartner

I wholeheartedly agree with concept of third-party testing of ropeless gear and that both the third-party researchers and fishermen should be properly and thoroughly trained before the use of gear on their own. Many difficulties have been experienced by research projects in the last year due to COVID restrictions, but for the safety of those testing gear, as well as the safety of the fisher’s gear attached to ropeless devices, creative methods have been implemented to try and negate the loss of in-person training. Additionally, this training is important to ensure objective results from these trials, as human error or lack of experience is the number one cause of ropeless malfunctions, to date.

Mark’s call to action for independent third party research was further cemented for me in January 2020, when I surveyed the nine Scottish fishers I trained in ropeless fishing gear proficiency, and asked them who they would prefer to to engage with in a learning exchange.  The only consensus reached was that they would prefer to learn from an independent researcher. The next most favored option was learning from other fishermen. (Figure 1). I have been fortunate to have functioned in the field thus far as an independent researcher, without an affiliation to any manufacturers, universities, for-profit groups, etc. that could be seen as contributing bias to results. In my experience, this has led to a robust and candid conversation on all topics ropeless, and critical to understanding the challenges and fears fishers express about the technology.

Figure 1.  Scottish Creel Fishermen Survey Question 12: “Who, in your opinion, would fishermen be most likely to both share information with and learn from, if helping to develop ropeless fishing? Choose as many as you like.”  

“Information is not knowledge.”
― Albert Einstein

Aka Why does any of this matter? Human factors engineering!

We must “Develop ropeless gear testing protocols through harmonization of multiple manufacturers’ protocols through a collaborating working group (what metrics need to be measured).”-M. Baumgartner

To continue the promising work with innovative fishing gears that reduce bycatch, the relationship of fisher to gear to innovation needs to be studied, this is done through the Human Factors Engineering process. Fortunately, there are MANY great models in place that can be used to help move this forward. Unbeknownst to many, it is this approach that grew out of the processes that have allowed humans to enjoy modern conveniences like the automobile, the home computer, and cell phone. To that end, I initiated an informal researcher/manufacturer working group during the 2018 Ropeless Consortium meeting to attempt to answer this need, as well as other stated needs by regulators regarding ropeless gear. Mark Baumgartner (WHOI) echoed this need and after 2019 year’s consortium meeting, NEFSC staff began a group that has met in different configurations to share approaches to research design. As of today, February 17, 2021, no standard testing protocol or measurable metrics consensus has been reached. I firmly believe a full-scale ropeless trial should include a high-quality, refined industry & fisher recommended minimal data set; such as the one utilized in recent gear research performed in the South Atlantic black sea bass pot fishery. This will allow fishers and management in other parts of the world to weigh in on what issues are important for their conditions and needs, and will help guide R&D work needed for adaptation and optimal marine mammal, fisher, and gear safety.

“Opinion is usually something which people have when they lack comprehensive information.”
Idries Shah

I agree with Mark’s belief that these harmonized protocols are needed to develop a clear understanding of the functionality of these gears and should be utilized during all research efforts and finally that,

These tests also need to serve the role of demonstrating the technology to many stakeholders such as other fishermen, regulators, conservationists, public; and this needs to be done for as many gear types as possible.-M. Baumgartner

Without a standard approach to data collection and reporting, it seems unlikely that our widespread efforts will produce the required faith by those stakeholders who are at the center of this work. While preparatory pilots and gear demos help establish excellent working relationships, our fisher collaborators depend on their research partners to develop strong and informed goals that generate concrete, tangible, and meaningful results. Without a clear and collaborative path forward in our efforts, many of these well-intentioned pilots (particularly those which are fisher-funded or rely on vessel, fuel, and crew time donation) could suffer, and we, as researchers, could actually be damaging these precious working relationships. For those who see these technologies as an opportunity, or even a necessity, it’s vital they have the utmost faith in our abilities, and we have a reasonable expectation of what can be accomplished to that end.

The trust placed in us by fishers is paramount; we have an obligation to earn and maintain that.

-KS February 2021

Georgia pot fishers testing ropeless gear configurations. Credit: Joel Cohen, 2020.

Ropeless IS Real- the report

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.

Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Permit 775-1600-10.

 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.

We have a chance to fix things.

No. 3329 Credit: Peter Flood

“If I seem like a radical, it may be because I see things that others do not. I think if others had the opportunity to witness what I’ve seen in my lifetime…I would not seem like a radical at all. We have a chance to fix things.”

-Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle. Mission Blue

It has taken several days for me to sit down and write this post.  This is not because I don’t know what to say, but because writing the words will make it real.

A year ago, I didn’t even know what a North Atlantic Right Whale was. Since that time, I have spent countless hours researching these animals, their families, their food, their habitats, their mating and migratory behaviors. I have also studied their necropsy reports, lab results, and a multitude of photos that exist of these animals and their babies. Too often, the images I see show them sliced apart or strangled by various fishing lines and lost gear, washed ashore as nothing more than deflated sacks of bone. The images of gaping wounds from propellers or a pathologist’s knife are becoming so common that now I feel each birth, and each loss, as intimately as if they were my own family.

We have lost 6 of a critically endangered species so far this season. Four of them were female.  We know that there are less than 100 breeding females in this tiny population that now numbers only 412. And this number only stands if all 7 of the calves born in Georgia and Florida survive their first year of life.

I will add more to this post as information becomes available, but please take a moment to pay tribute to these six individual animals whose lives enriched our coastal waters for too short of a time.

We still have a chance to fix things.

-Kim Sawicki, 1 July 2019


Please consider a donation to the Center for Coastal Studies, an organization that does incredible work for our North Atlantic Right Whales, as well as our ecosystem-at-large.


What do we know about these animals that died?


Punctuation Credit: DFO

We know that Punctuation, a 38-year-old grandmother, had been previously entangled in fishing gear before and survived. We also know that she was struck twice by boat propellers and lived. We know that she had at least 8 calves that also had successful births. We also know that she traveled to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence this summer, was struck by a third boat, and was killed.


Comet Credit: Dr. Moira Brown

We know that Comet, 34, was a grandfather as well. It has been determined by his autopsy, completed June 28th, 2019 by by the Marine Animal Response Society, DFO, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, the Atlantic Veterinary College, the province and the Canadian Coast Guard that his death was also, likely due to ship strike.


Wolverine Credit: Sheila McKenney/Associated Scientists of Woods Hole/Marineland Right Whale Project
Wolverine Credit: Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC
Wolverine’s Necropsy Credit: Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC

We know that Wolverine, whose cause of death has yet to be determined, was only 9 years old. This is the equivalent of a 9 year-old human child dying of “unknown” causes. Wolverine was named for the propeller gashes visible along his spine. He also had been the victim of a series of entanglements.


Clipper and Calf 2016 Credit-Marineland RW Project

We know that Clipper, who was necropsied today on the Gaspe Penisula, was the victim many years ago of a previous ship strike that left her with a clipped tail fluke. She was first seen in 2004, and had likely been a mother twice. Clipper was reported as of July 5th, 2019 to have also been killed by a ship strike.


No. 3815 Credit: Center for Coastal Studies

No. 3815 was first seen as a calf off New Jersey in May 2008. She is the daughter of Harmony, No. 3115, who was the daughter of No. 1815. She was only 12 years old, and was just entering the age of sexual maturity.


No. 3329 Credit: Jolinne Surette

No. 3329 was likely born in December 2002 off Georgia. She is the daughter of Viola No. 2029 who was the daughter of Ipanema, No. 1629. She was also quite photogenic.


We still have a chance to fix things. Right Whale Credit: Brian Skerry
sustainable seas 2019

Ropeless Consortium Informal Industry Working Group Ropeless Gear Testing Matrix 2019

Below please find a gear testing matrix that is offered open source to anyone wishing to perform ropeless gear testing. It is the result of the collaborative efforts of all of the gear designers and manufacturers listed on this blog. Through their willingness to work together to solve the problem of entanglements, they are proving that their hearts, as well as their technology are in the Right place. I would personally like to thank them for their participation in this seemingly small but important contribution.

-Kim Sawicki March 2019

Why disentanglement teams are a crutch and not an adequate defense against entanglements.

Humpback whale entangled in fishing gear. © 2019 Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventures

“Disentanglement is a crutch that’s been leant on for too long, it should not be viewed as a long-term solution to the entanglement crisis”
– large whale disentanglement team member, Massachusetts.
Quote from Ellie MacLennan’s 2017 paper “Disentangling a Whale of a Problem”

From the 2017 National Report on Large Whale Entanglements:

“Seventy-six confirmed cases of large whale entanglements were documented along the coasts of the United States in 2017. Seventy of these entanglement cases involved live animals and six involved dead animals. All were independently confirmed by the Large Whale Entanglement Response Network.”

The five most frequently entangled large whale species in 2017 included humpback whale, gray whale, minke whale, blue whale, and North Atlantic right whale. Large whale entanglements were reported and confirmed in the waters of 13 states, along all U.S. coasts except within the Gulf of Mexico.

Approximately 70 percent of confirmed cases in 2017 were entangled in fishing gear (line and buoys, traps, monofilament line, and nets)”

2017 National Report on Large Whale Entanglements, NOAA.

Sadly, this is an all-too-common occurrence these days.

This whale was unable to be completely disentangled, despite the best efforts of the whale watching company (who reported it and stood by the animal) and NOAA’s authorized and highly-trained team. Even when people do everything right, many of these entangled animals can not be freed.

No fisher ever wants or intends to be the cause of these entanglements as they are costly to the fisher as well as the environment. Fishers are not the cause of these entanglements, outdated technology is. We owe it to them to work toward a solution that keeps this in mind.

Deceased Atlantic Humpback, cause of death unknown. ©2019 Betty Burks

-Kim Sawicki March 2019

Fishing without Rope?

Southern Right Whales. © Brian Skerry

Past research has indicated an undeniable benefit to the use of innovative ropeless gear within pot and trap fisheries with a removal of end lines and buoy lines. (Baumgartner et al., 2018.; Werner et al., 2015; Lent, 2017; FAO, 2018) These innovative approaches to end line management allow for the lowered risk of bycatch and entanglements of critically endangered species, most particularly that of the North Atlantic Right Whale.

It is imperative that a better understanding of the benefits and potential gains be attained if technology such as this is to be affordable and accepted for widespread use for pot/trap fisheries.  Due the innate differences of individual fisheries, it is well accepted that there will likely not exist one perfect ropeless technology that will address all of the individual needs of all fisheries. Many of the current designs have several decades of successful use in other applications, serving to catalyze and invigorate new manufacturers of gear, as well as thoughtful adaptations of existing devices.

As with any proposed change to fishing technique or technology, there has historically been a period of resistance, research, and adjustment. This period has been unusually long for ropeless gear, and thus far, much of the discourse between management and industry partners has been laden with untested hypothetical concerns regarding functionality and implementation.


Valid concerns provided by fishers with decades of harvesting experience have not been reasonably resolved with the limited testing that has been completed by manufacturers, environmental non-government organizations, or fisheries partners. To ensure the continued success of a co-management approach to fisheries practices, priority needs to be given to further this testing.

-Kim Sawicki January 2019