The Northern right whale crisis has posed significant challenges to snow crab fishers in a particular area of Nova Scotia. This season, they faced a 37 percent reduction in their quota, and for the first time, Northern right whales entered their fishing zone, causing stress and disruptions in their operations. Marc Lefort, a snow crab harvester with 19 years of experience in western Cape Breton Island and a member of the Area 19 Snow Crab Fishermen’s Association in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia, described the season as particularly challenging.
The critically endangered Northern right whales have been a focus of conservation efforts due to the entanglement risks associated with fixed gear, such as traps connected to buoys by ropes. This has prompted fisheries for lobster and snow crab to explore new measures and alternative fishing gear to safeguard these marine mammals.
Amidst these challenges, Marc Lefort found a solution to cope with the closures: ropeless fishing gear. He is one of the fishers who collaborated with the CanFish Gear Lending Program to trial this innovative equipment in his area. This program has emerged as a potential lifeline for the fishing community in the face of the right whale crisis, offering fishers a try-before-you-buy opportunity that encourages them to consider investing in their own ropeless gear.
The CanFish lending program, developed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and headquartered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, provides ropeless fishing gear for use during closures, free of charge. This program, modeled on a tool-lending library, equips fishers with the necessary training to operate the gear and allows them to request it in the event of a closure. The experience has been so promising that it has motivated some fishers to purchase their own ropeless fishing equipment.
With the prevalence of closures and the recent federal government decision to legalize fishing without buoys, the transition to ropeless gear is viewed by many as an inevitable change. Sean Brillant, a conservation biologist leading the program, highlights that the unpredictability of right whales, coupled with their responses to climate and ocean changes, necessitates a shift in fishing practices.
The movement of Northern right whales over the past two decades illustrates their adaptability. While they once congregated in the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, they have shifted to the Gulf of St. Lawrence over the last six years. This migration has led to the closure of large areas of the Gulf, spanning 70,000 to 50,000 square kilometers, to commercial fishers in efforts to protect the whales.
(Picture from Canadian Wildlife Federation)
CanFish has been actively experimenting with ropeless fishing gear over the past five years, completing 1,000 trials involving nine different ropeless systems. They have partnered with 20 snow crab and lobster commercial fishers in the Maritimes, taking various systems out on the water with fishers as co-investigators to assess their effectiveness under different conditions and provide feedback to gear manufacturers. This lending program officially commenced in the fall of 2022, initially funded by the Canadian federal government as part of the 2021 CAD $20 million (U.S. $15 million) Whale Safe Gear Adoption Fund. This year, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, along with several foundations, is supporting the program.
During a closure in the Tignish, Prince Edward Island area last year, CanFish trained a dozen fishers on the gear, enabling them to fish in closed areas for six weeks and haul in approximately half a million pounds of snow crab. As closures become increasingly common, fishers recognize the potential of ropeless gear to access areas that would otherwise be off-limits to traditional gear.
While some fishers initially resisted the idea of using ropeless fishing gear, the prospect of closures has shifted their perspective. The unpredictable nature of closures has led fishers to acknowledge the importance of having ropeless gear at their disposal, as the need may arise at any time.
Basil Maclean, a representative with the Area 19 CFA, notes that while some fishers may be nervous about transitioning to ropeless gear, attitudes have been changing towards a more sustainable approach. Maclean believes that ropeless fishing gear is becoming inevitable and is a necessary cost of doing business. He personally plans to purchase ropeless gear from a local Halifax company, Ashored, at an estimated cost of CAD $50,000, considering it a worthwhile investment given the substantial capital already committed to the fishery.
However, the CanFish program has a limited amount of gear available. Most of the fishing fleet, including Maclean, had met their quotas before the announcement of closures. Maclean and others helped fishers who had not reached their quotas access the gear. He even went out with a colleague to provide hands-on training in gear operation. Nonetheless, if closures had been declared a week earlier, the demand for gear would likely have exceeded the available supply.
To address this issue, the Area 19 CFA is exploring the possibility of establishing its own lending program for its members, a move that some other fishing associations have already undertaken. Following their experience with CanFish gear, both the PEI Fishermen’s Association and the Acadian Crabbers Association have purchased ropeless gear to lend to their members in case of closures.
Sean Brillant offers a cautionary note, acknowledging that ropeless fishing gear technology continues to evolve, and some fishers may find it beneficial to postpone their purchases for future iterations. Although the systems they have trialed have shown promise, there are still some challenges to overcome. Marc Lefort mentioned issues with the buoy line interacting with the ground line, and the lack of interoperability among tracking software from different gear companies means fishers may not know the locations of other boats unless they are on the same system.
Despite these challenges, the fishing industry is moving closer to a solution that could benefit the fishery. Some boats, particularly smaller ones with limited deck space and smaller quotas, may currently find the cost of ropeless gear prohibitive. However, CanFish offers gear training, and the regulatory changes allowing ropeless fishing are seen as an opportunity to transition to more environmentally sustainable practices. Funding from public sources to support this transition is considered a plausible idea.
Many fishers, like Basil Maclean, are not waiting for further developments and are prepared to invest in their own ropeless gear, ensuring they are ready for the next fishing season. As Maclean puts it, "It's too expensive to stay home."
Reference: Danielle Beurteaux, (Oct 9, 2023). Gear-lending program has harvesters working through closures and trying ropeless fishing gear without commitment. Global seafood alliance. https://bit.ly/3Qgu6zD