This week a high-stakes conference in Providence is considering new measures that could help endangered North Atlantic right whales avoid life-threatening entanglements in fishing gear. These measures could also challenge Maine's lobster industry, though.
Possible solutions range from modifying the rope lobster harvesters use to haul their traps, to trap limits, to seasonal closures of the fishery.
Inside the cluttered southern Maine workshop of a company called Blue Water Concepts, engineer and tinkerer Ben Brickett is looking to solve a fraught dilemma: how to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in lobster trap rope — short of pulling the gear out of the water altogether.
His answer is an invention that he calls a time tension line-cutter:
Ben Brickett is looking to solve a fraught dilemma - video by Fred Bever/ Maine Public
He holds a segmented black tube that is a little longer than his forearm. A rope is strung through, and the contraption is engineered to hold fast during the time it takes a lobsterman to haul up a trap-line.
But if tension on the rope continues for an extended period, such as when a whale is entangled, an industrial razor blade inside the tube cuts the rope in two.
"Now the whale — say this is attached to the trap, ok, the whale would be on this end, he pulls this rope off and he's swimming off with a knot-free end," says Brickett.
There has been a problem, though. Fishermen found that the original tension system was unwieldy, even dangerous, when they spooled it through their power winches. The new version is designed to stand away from the winch. Brickett is testing it out in the Piscataqua River, which divides Maine and New Hampshire.
“First time I've tried this one, so..." Brickett drops two lobster traps overboard, with the tensioner attached to the rope line. When he winches it back up, he easily hand-guides it past the wheel.
"Well I stood it up over, she came up through, and now that's going to go right back down again,” says Brickett.
"It works, it works pretty well," says Tim Werner, a scientist at Boston's New England Aquarium.
Werner says there are still some unknowns about Brickett's time tensioner — how it will work under differing temperatures, for instance.
And there is another question that he finds more significant.
"You want to reduce as much as possible the amount of time that the whale is in the rope," says Werner.
It is just not known, Werner says, how long a whale might take to work free of a rope that is no longer anchored to lobster traps or buoys. When it comes to whale survival, he says, seconds count.
"The longer the whale is in the rope, you might have a greater chance of greater injury through cutting action or squeezing off parts of tissue,” he says. “The time tension line-cutter technology, we believe, doesn't act as quickly as whale release rope."
Whale release rope is the specialty of another New England Aquarium scientist, Amy Knowlton.
Last summer, at the aquarium's outpost in way Downeast Lubec, Knowlton demonstrated a new rope innovation to Canadian whale scientist Moira Brown. It's called a rope sleeve — basically a weak link lobstermen can weave into their trap-lines. It is engineered to part at a strength that scientists believe right whales can easily break through.
Remember those woven finger traps you won at the fair? Imagine a very long one of those. “And you freak out because you thought 'I'm never going to get this off my finger,'” Knowlton explains.
“So then there's, I can just feel a kind of indentation in the hollow braid, and that's where the next section fits in,” says Brown. “Ah that's great.”
So instead of presenting lobstermen with the frightening cost of replacing all their heavy trap-lines, they could instead slip some of these weaker links into rope stock they already have.
Whale release rope, like the time tension line-cutter, holds promise. Yet for some conservationists, any rope is too much.
"We need to get lines out of the water if we are going to protect the North Atlantic right whale," says Emily Green, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), one of several groups suing the federal government for better protections of the whales, protections that they say are mandated by the Endangered Species Act.
They want the feds to impose seasonal closures on fixed-gear fisheries when whales are likely to be swimming through.
"We have concerns with weak rope,” says Green. “Calves, for instance, may have problems with entanglement, even in weak ropes or breakaway ropes."
Back on the Piscataqua River, Ben Brickett says more radical measures that groups like CLF are advocating, including closures, are on their way unless regulators and fishermen alike adopt some sort of near-term gear changes. Just a week-long closure, he says, could be catastrophic.
"First off, look at the state, what would they lose in taxes? Now you've got your bait, you've got your truckers, you've got all the infrastructure workers,” Brickett says. “They're all laid off. Guys are going to start losing their million-dollar boats. Repo. Then they're going to go on unemployment. It's huge. It's millions and millions of dollars in a week. You can't do it."
One more gear change that is just emerging could be the ultimate techno-fix — so-called “rope-less” or “buoy-less” systems — essentially a remote-control setup for finding submerged traps and calling them to the surface. But many fishermen scoff at the idea, and even the scientists working on prototypes acknowledge the system is years away.
In the meantime, with fewer than 420 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet, a group called the "Large Atlantic Whale Take Reduction team" is due Friday afternoon to recommend a set of near-term protections. And federal fisheries managers say that as soon as next week, they will start a rule-making process for new regulations aimed at reducing whale mortality by 60 percent or more.