Obie Spear, right, Eric Donahue and Topher Pidden offload pogie gear from the fishing vessel Tenacious onto a trailer at high tide on Wednesday in the Old Port before heading back out to haul lobster.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine lobstermen are signaling their hesitation to participate in a multimillion-dollar program the state is launching to test new ropeless technology that the federal government soon may require to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been awarded $5.1 million from the federal government and a national nonprofit to research alternatives to the traditional trap-and-buoy lobster gear that requires vertical lines that can entangle the whales. But amid criticism and cynicism from many in the lobster industry, the department and its partnering organizations may face challenges recruiting lobstermen to play a key role in the evaluations.

“There’s no sense of wasting a lot of time and effort on our part into something that is not going to work,” said Colin Grierson, a longtime lobsterman in Midcoast Maine, “It’s going to take time away from when you’re normally fishing in a more traditional method when the end (conclusion) is not going to be ‘this is going to work great.’ It’s not.”

The $5.1 million award comes from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which are facilitating an $18.3 million grant program across New England. The 18 awards are intended to advance the development of “innovative fishing gear” as an alternative to vertical fishing lines, or ropes dangling in the ocean, that federal regulators contend are severely harming the right whale populations.

The NOAA estimates that over 85% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. According to the agency’s September 2023 tracker, fishing-gear entanglements have caused 65% of the 121 incidents that killed or seriously injured right whales since 2017. No right whale deaths have been conclusively linked to the state’s lobstering industry and the last known entanglement in Maine was nearly two decades ago. But scientists also emphasize that there hasn’t been enough gear marking to precisely nail down where a whale has been entangled.



In 2021, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service released regulations that were intended to lower the risk of entanglement, including a reduction in the number of vertical fishing lines and an increase in the amount of a vertical line’s breakable points.

Lobstermen have been largely unhappy with the regulations, fearing that the regulations will destroy the lobstering industry as they know it. Maine’s congressional delegation succeeded in securing legislative approval for a reprieve that stalls the regulations from going into effect until Jan. 1, 2029. Industry groups also have succeeded in taking NOAA to court, where the regulations are still tied up.

Even so, the clock is ticking and the Department of Marine Resources wants to be prepared for what it expects is an inevitable regulation.

The lobster boat “Sleepless Nights” comes into the harbor in Stonington after a day of hauling traps in May. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“While we think the (National Marine Fisheries Service) should focus on other regulations to reduce the risk of serious injury and mortality to endangered North Atlantic right whales, it is clear that they are not backing away from ropeless fishing and at some point will require the use of alternative gear,” department spokesperson Jeff Nichols said.

Of the $6.9 million dedicated to Maine, the department received two grants totaling $5 million in order to research and evaluate the effectiveness of acoustic geolocation systems, which use technology to locate fishing traps on the ocean floor and transmit a sound that triggers the traps to rise to the surface. They will evaluate this work by recruiting fishermen to do the testing.

One group will test the technology’s ability to effectively locate the traps, while the other will focus on how well the technology can retrieve the traps from the ocean floor.


The Department of Marine Resources will run the program by expanding the Maine Innovative Gear Library to lend out the technology, providing education and training on how to use the gear, and gathering feedback from participating lobstermen. The department will pay lobstermen for their participation, though it is still finalizing those details, Nichols said.

Five other organizations are partnering with the department to help facilitate that work across the state.

The Island Institute, for one, has been tasked with recruiting members of lobstering communities up and down the coast by way of education. The Rockland-based nonprofit works to protect the resiliency of Maine’s working waterfront and marine economy.

But Sam Belknap, the institute’s director of the Center for Marine Economy, predicts that finding lobstermen willing to participate in the test runs will be an uphill battle.

“It’s going to be a harder sell,” Belknap said. “This fishery, when you’re reliant on your equipment for your personal safety and for your ability to make a living, there is rightly a need to see technology proven before you go all in. ”



Many in the lobstering industry, a community that is largely skeptical about the need for and viability of alternative gear, are already feeling cynical about being testers in the program.

Some lobstermen believe testing won’t change the outcome: the gear isn’t going to work, so there’s no point in wasting the time.

Some believe that testing the gear out will come at a financial cost not worth the DMR’s payout: it will take a lot of effort to figure out gear that they know isn’t profitable.

In the Department of Marine Resources’ programs, lobstermen will get paid to use that gear.

But Grierson, the midcoast lobsterman, anticipates that learning the ropes of the ropeless tech will take up a lot of time that could be spent fishing and not bring back a big enough catch.

“Time is a lot of money,” Grierson said. “And if you’re fishing to try to earn a living, you don’t have time to master this stuff.”


And Virginia Olsen, the Maine Lobstering Union’s political director, pointed out that paying lobstermen to test out that gear is merely a temporary fix. They’ll eventually have to switch over on their own dime, she said. One of the major issues with the regulations is the sheer cost of transitioning a whole fleet of gear to meet the requirements.

Olsen, also a commercial lobsterman, estimates that she’d run a $1.3 million bill to switch over her 800 traps. Other lobstermen anticipate around $500,000 to outfit boats with the necessary gear.

Some think the future of ropeless gear regulations is too uncertain to participate in a program that could seal its fate. Olsen does not believe union members will want to participate unless NOAA clears up confusion around which zones the regulations would take effect in.

Lobsterman load traps onto a lobster boat at Custom House Wharf in Portland in July 2022. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“The majority of fishermen hand down their fishery, to their children, where they fish, how they fish, how they interact with other fishermen. And when you disrupt that process, you’re throwing people into an area that they just don’t understand the dynamics of that area, so people are leery,” Olsen said. “I do not believe fishermen are willing to go out and test this gear until they know that it’s not going to be in the entire Gulf of Maine.”


And some think that finding impartial lobstermen on either side of the issue is not possible: everyone’s already made up their minds.


“People will have biases, and it will be hard to get past that,” Swan’s Island lobsterman Jason Joyce said. “I would not participate because, I am biased, too. If I saw it worked, hey that would be great. But I know enough, I’ve got common sense enough.”

In Joyce’s ideal world, the Department of Marine Resources would be conducting the research – he trusts that the agency would be truthful about the results.

But department Commissioner Patrick Keliher is set on including fishermen in the path forward – though Olsen believes fishermen have been excluded from the conversation for far too long.

“It is my goal to make sure we know what gear works, and more importantly what doesn’t work, so when future draft federal regulations come forward, we can draw on the real-world experience of fishermen when determining what the next steps should be,” Keliher said.

Belknap is an optimist, though. He believes the Island Institute, with deep roots in the lobstering and fishing industry, can convince lobstermen to join in the effort with open dialogue and a commitment to figuring out what works and what doesn’t, rather than just looking for successful results some lobstermen believe NOAA wants.

“There is a healthy skepticism around how this is going to work, how much it’s going to cost and what it’s going to change within the fishery,” he said. “That healthy mix of those willing to innovate, and those with a deeper level of skepticism are going to lead to the best outcomes from a project like this.”

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