North Atlantic right whales are facing extinction largely because they get entangled in fishing gear, including lobster trap lines. These lines, which connect a buoy at the surface to traps hundreds of feet down on the seafloor, get tangled and dragged by whales as they swim by. The right whale population has only 500 members remaining worldwide , 4.3 of whom die annually on average , and an estimated 83% of whom have experienced entanglement . Entanglement not only kills whales, but also renders female survivors less likely to reproduce; calving rates have dropped by 40% since 2010, and there is concern the species may not recover . There is clear evidence that lobster traps have a significant impact on the right whale population: 80% of right whale entanglements over 30 years have been due to non-mobile pots and nets , and Maine is simultaneously one of the right whale’s primary habitats and a lobster fishing mecca. If right whales are to avoid extinction, Maine urgently needs a solution that lobstermen, regulators, and conservationists can agree on. More broadly, marine debris entanglements affect more than 200 species worldwide, with the majority of pinniped and cetacean entanglements resulting from encounters with actively fished gear, like lobster traps . A solution to the particular problem of right whale killings in Maine would inform scaled development of entanglement prevention worldwide. * References available upon request.
The LobsterLift is a lineless, self-surfacing, modular lobster trap retrieval system. Traps utilizing the LobsterLift sit entirely on the seafloor, never extend a line to the surface, and raise themselves only when needed. This eliminates the possibility of entanglement. In order to retrieve a trawl, a lobsterman sends an acoustic signal from a tracker on their boat to a module attached to their trawl. The module then releases air from a tank to inflate an attached balloon. The balloon increases in size until it can buoy the trawl to the surface, where it is retrieved per usual. Critically, our technology enables lobstermen to keep fishing the way they always have – important for encouraging adoption. The LobsterLift provides several benefits over existing techniques. Locations plotted on a mobile application allow lobstermen to recover their traps more easily than with line-based techniques. In addition, the LobsterLift can aid regulators in optimizing use of marine resources while preventing overfishing. Because the LobsterLift is location-aware, it can generate a map of all currently-placed trawls. This ensures that lobstermen can maintain their fishing territories without physical markers, which enables them to continue self-regulating and which can also be a monitoring tool for regulatory authorities.
We assume that the device can be engineered so that false positives for inflation triggers are near impossible. This amounts to rigorous testing and good software engineering.
We assume that docking the module will not be burdensome. This is reasonable because it only adds a few seconds to the fishing process.
We assume that hydrophones are expensive because they are niche items with few producers + making our own will significantly reduce costs. This seems reasonable because its parts are not extravagant.
We assume that the onboard tracker will be able to reliably communicate with underwater modules. This is reasonable because there is abundant precedent for such technology.
Cost is perhaps the most important barrier to adoption of lineless trap retrieval systems. Other systems with similar solutions have been prototyped at near $20,000 per unit, with the only commercial system still costing an exorbitant $1000. For comparison, a lobster trap costs roughly $80. For a solution to be widely adopted by lobstermen, it needs to make financial sense. So far, no lineless system has done so. By lowering costs and adding features, we hope to make adopting LobsterLift a profitable business decision. Another critical barrier to adoption has been usability. The most readily available lineless system on the market today operates via a fusible metal link. In order to prepare this system for another use, a lobsterman first needs to cut a short length of an exotic metal wire (typically a nickel-chromium alloy) and painstakingly install it between two terminals on the device. LobsterLift, on the other hand, is designed to be exceptionally simple to reuse.
Our project’s overarching goal is to design a lineless trap system that lobstermen want to buy. The 1st phase will be to design for usability. This means that the trap should match the lobstermen’s existing processes but also provide features that current technologies lack, such as location tracking. The 2nd phase will be to make LobsterLift affordable. This entails adjusting the design to maximize manufacturability. This also includes partnering with governments, conservation groups, and other stakeholders to subsidize LobsterLift units or provide grants for research and development of the technology. The 3rd phase will be to make LobsterLift profitable, to fund technological improvements and modifications to accommodate other kinds of fishing gear. We have already filed a provisional patent application. IP protection will allow us to develop a system that adheres to our conservation principles while preventing companies with less altruistic motives from undercutting our price.
We are looking for funding for this project to help purchase equipment and materials necessary for the development of the functional prototype. We will likely need access to a boat, diving equipment, and other monitoring equipment for testing the functional performance of the prototypes and subsystems we develop. We would like to connect with local lobstermen and local interest groups to have continuous feedback that the solution we are developing will have a strong chance of adoption by the community. We are also interested in connecting with any local interest groups that could subsidize the cost of LobsterLifts for Maine lobstermen. We would also like to connect with an underwater acoustics communication expert, because we understand that the dynamics of underwater communication are complex, and this is a critical element in our design.