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Protected Species Gear Research

We work closely with the commercial fishing industry to reduce harmful interactions with marine mammals, turtles, and other protected species.

researcher working with lobster trap

Eric Matzen collecting data during buoyless lobster trap tests.

Testing gear with fishermen under actual fishing conditions is key to developing modifications that can reduce whale entanglements without significant loss of the targeted catch.

Ropeless Gear Reduces Large Whale Entanglement

Large whales, including humpbacks and the endangered North Atlantic right whale, can become entangled in lobster and gillnet gear. NOAA Fisheries has required many changes to the gear to reduce entanglements and the injuries and deaths that may result. While these regulations have reduced this risk, some remains.

NOAA Fisheries continues to work with the fishing industry and others to find solutions that will eliminate this risk. We have built relationships with fishermen, people who manufacture ropeless systems, and environmental organizations. We are working to further the development of safe and feasible fishing methods that do not use vertical lines in pot/trap and other fishing gears.

“Ropeless” Solutions for Gear Setting and Retrieval

This illustration shows the rope and buoy system traditionally used for lobster fishing in contrast to three different types of ropeless fishing gear designed to prevent whale entanglement. A right whale is at the center, swimming safely above the ropeless systems on the ocean floor, each connected to a series of lobster traps, but toward an entanglement hazard posed by traditional fishing gear with a rope connecting the surface buoy above to lobster traps below. A lobster fishing boat is at the top right a

In comparison to traditional designs, ropeless systems reduce the amount of line in the water. Traditional methods use a buoy and line that are used to locate and haul (retrieve) the gear. The main characteristic of ropeless gear is the removal of the rope that tethers pots to a buoy at the water’s surface.

Buoy and Line Alternatives

We are helping fishermen test alternatives to the buoy and line, including pop-up buoys, inflatable lift bags, and buoyant spools.

Pop-up Buoy

The vertical line is coiled in a cage that is on the ocean bottom attached to a string of traps. When a signal is received from the boat at the surface, the buoy or cage top is released from the cage. The line uncoils to the surface, allowing the fishing vessel to retrieve the gear.

Inflatable Lift Bag

A deflated lift bag is attached to a cage connected to a string of lobster traps. When a signal is sent from the boat, the lift bag inflates and the cage rises to the surface. This allows the fisherman to retrieve the cage and the pots that are connected to it.

Buoyant Spool

Line wrapped around a buoyant spool is tethered to a weight on the bottom. When a signal is sent from the boat, the spool is released. As the spool ascends to the surface, the line unwinds from the spool. It rises to the surface where the fishing vessel can retrieve it, and the gear on the string.

Gear Library

To increase the amount of testing that is being done on ropeless systems, we have assisted in creating a “gear library.” With the help and donations from environmental and academic organizations, we house dozens of ropeless systems from many different manufacturers. Permitted fishermen and researchers can borrow pop-up buoys, inflatable lift bags, and buoyant spools from the gear library. In return, the borrowers provide us with insights into how the gear operates on their vessel, any problems encountered, and suggestions for improving the technologies.

Federal permit holders who would like to test ropeless gear are invited to apply for an Exempted Fishing Permit. An EFP authorizes a fishing vessel to conduct fishing activities that would otherwise be prohibited under current regulations, in this case, to fish without surface marking systems. Fishermen must obtain authorization from the state (if in state waters) and/or from NOAA Fisheries (dual permitted/federal only) to fish without buoys/radar reflectors.

Find out more about these permits:

Finding and Retrieving Ropeless Gear

If ropeless gear is to be widely used, then we need an effective and affordable system for locating the gear. Currently, others in the area can see the surface buoys that are attached to a vertical line connected to the gear on the ocean bottom. With ropeless gear, there will need to be another way.

We’re working with our partners to develop a system that will allow all fishermen operating around a set of ropeless gear—which will not have surface buoys—to know it is there and avoid it. One of many efforts to address this is a recently conducted global technology search with NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation and Yet2. They are working to identify technologies that may be able to solve these challenges. The Yet2 report on their search concluded that:

  • Acoustic technology remains the most viable solution for underwater gear marking
  • There are a wide range of global manufacturers with the expertise to meet this demand
  • There is reason to believe that the cost of this technology can come down as it finds wider use, such as in ropeless gear marking

Roadmap to Wider Use of Ropeless Gear

Recent revisions to large whale protection rules allow use of ropeless gear in specific areas with appropriate exemption permits, but does not require it anywhere. To advance prospects for wider use of this kind of gear, NOAA Fisheries will manage development of a “roadmap” outlining the steps toward wider use of ropeless gear. The roadmap will be developed with constituents. We plan to complete a draft for review by interested parties in early 2022, with a final plan by May 2022. Steps in the plan include:

  • Developing a well-publicized, open, effective procedure for ongoing involvement of constituents to identify and address industry concerns, including but not limited to privacy, safety, gear loss, gear conflict, effects on catch, and costs
  • Investing in the technologies needed to make ropeless work: for example, gear and gear detection to avoid gear conflict and gear loss
  • Evaluating the economic impacts of converting to ropeless fishing for various fisheries and time ranges.
  • Continuing to test experimental designs with fishermen under a variety of actual fishing conditions
  • Working with fishery managers to revise current rules as policies as needed to allow the use of ropeless gear

Reducing Sea Turtle Entanglement and Capture in Fishing Gear

Image
Men attaching data recorder to fishing net.
Fishermen help attach a video camera to a fishing net to assess net performance. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

All sea turtles in U.S. waters are listed under the Endangered Species Act and some fisheries are a significant threat to them. Our research helps find ways to modify gear so that it continues to fish well, but is less likely to catch or entangle sea turtles.

Trawl Gear Research

Turtle excluder devices (TEDs) are successfully used in shrimp nets to reduce the capture of sea turtles. Our trawl gear research is building on the TED model to further improve results where TEDs are now used, and to reduce sea turtle bycatch in other trawl fisheries. Our current focus is on a new design for squid trawls using a sorting grid made from cables sewn into the net. Experimental work is ongoing to test how adding the cable grid affects catch and bycatch rates, and how vessel size affects the gear’s performance.

Image
Net with camera and light attached.
Image showing sorting grid in a squid trawl. Grid is illuminated by a light, shown in the foreground. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Low Profile Gillnets

 
Low profile gillnets are not required in Northeast gillnet fisheries. However, for fisheries that occur where loggerhead bycatch is a concern, this work shows a promising way to mitigate risks posed to these turtles while maintaining fishy catch.
 
From 2012-2016,approximately 705 (141 annually) loggerhead sea turtles were bycaught in gillnet gear in the mid-Atlantic and on Georges Bank. The highest loggerhead bycatch occurred in the northern Mid-Atlantic from July to October in large mesh (7 inches or greater) gear.
 

Publications

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Protected Species Gear Research Contract Reports

2020 Milliken H, Hopkins N. Marzen E, Keane E. 2020. 2020 Comparative studies of the catch loss of longfin inshore squid when using the TI Cable…

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on September 30, 2021