Five years after setting out to find a solution to the problem of whales getting tangled in fishing gear, a Nova Scotia company is ready to move from research and development phase to manufacturing.
Ashored Innovations has been trialing and testing a ‘gear on command’ system since 2018.
Stephen Jones, chief business development officer with the company, said with a few more software and hardware tweaks they will be ready to start selling ready-to-use systems to East Coast fishing fleets.
“We have the capacity to build 15 units a week. By the spring of 2024 we hope to be building 40 units a week,” Jones told SaltWire this week.
They call it a MOBI — Modular Ocean Based Instrument.
The premise is simple.
Normally one end of a line of lobster pots, or crab pots, is tethered to a surface buoy, allowing the fish harvester to locate the end of the line and start hauling.
In the MOBI system the rope is stored a cage, fixed with an acoustic sensor, that’s thrown overboard to sit on the bottom with the pots.
When the harvester is ready to haul the gear, they trigger an acoustic signal—using an app on a computer tablet— to release the rope and buoys in the cage to float to the surface.
Even though the MOBI system is still in the testing stage, about 150 systems are already in use, said Jones.
“Last year in Canada, nearly one million pounds of snow crab was caught—mostly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence—using ropeless gear,” said Jones.
The Acadian Snow Crabbers Association in New Brunswick has been doing ropeless gear trials since 2018, said Catherine Merriman, Senior officer National Whales Program at DFO.
“Their fisheries had been involved in right whale entanglements in 2017, and they got right on it, took a leadership role and have been working to solve that problem,” she said.
They landed about three-quarters of a million pounds of snow crab in 2022 caught with so-called on-demand gear, she said.
“They are showing that for the way they fish, and where they fish, it’s a viable option.”
DFO has spent a lot of money to help find solutions to reduce the changes of whales getting caught up in fishing gear.
With more endangered right whales showing up in the Gulf region, the only option for the department has been to shut down some fishing areas when the whales are passing through.
In an area near Cape Breton this past summer, the snow crab season was shut down two weeks earlier than expected because when right whales were spotted in the area.
In 2021 the department announced $20 million for research and development of on-demand gear, as well as low breaking strength rope.
That money funded 34 projects and joint research.
When Ashored wanted to test its system in deeper waters, on crab fishing boats, for instance, the company turned to Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI) in St. John’s.
With funding of over $700,000 from the Whale Safe program, the CCFI was able to engage a half dozen snow crab boats from around the island—Grand Bank, Fogo Island and Conception Bay—to test Ashored’s MOBI system in a working environment.
These trials, carried out during the 2022 season, helped the company learn whether the system would work in deeper waters.
Harvesters were also able to make suggestions for improvements.
“For instance, the crab harvesters who tested it said a rectangular cage was not functional,” said Keith Hutchings, executive director for CCFI.
To fit with the deck space available, they suggested that for crab fishing fleets the unit would need to be placed in a circular cage, the same size and shape as a crab pot, to enable it to be stacked with the rest of the gear.
Last month the CCFI produced a report and findings from the study, which contained several other suggestions to fine-tune the MOBI.
From simple fixes, like using non-corroding paint to avoid rust on the unit, to the need for longer-life batteries for use in deeper, colder, waters, the tests will guide Ashored on software and hardware improvements.
In another pilot project in Newfoundland, the Miwakpukek First Nation has partnered with Nova Scotia ocean tech company Jasco to test “a truly ropeless” system, noted Merriman.
That system uses a float bag, inflated using a gas cannister, a system similar to the process used by salvage operators to raise sunken boats, she explained.
The funding program for the Whale Safe Gear pilot projects ended in March, and DFO will spend some time reviewing the reports on the trials and testing.
The technology developed by Ashored could have other applications beyond the fishing boats, added Jones.
Other people are looking at the possibilities of using the acoustic system to collect data on water temperature and quality, or even listen for whales.
“We are just about to start work with DFO scientists to actively listen for whales with hydrophones. They will tether those devices to our systems and just leave them in the water for long-term data collection,” he said.
Some researchers from Dalhousie are considering the technology.
“They don’t want a surface buoy on the top of the water because it could be damaged or tampered with. They want to leave something in the water for long periods of time to monitor what they are working with. So, they are using our system for long term deployment,” said Jones.
2024 and beyond
The purpuse of testing these new technologies is not to select one system that will work for everyone, Merriman said.
It’s about building technology to suit particular fisheries, and ensuring the systems can work with each other.
“What we foresee in the future is a landscape where different systems are available and it’s up to the harvesters to choose which one works best with the way their fishery works,” she said.
When it launched the Whale Safe Gear program in 2021, the DFO indicated regulations would be coming in 2024 that would require harvesters to start using whale safe gear.
How that rolls out remains to be seen.
Merriman suggested some areas – like the north east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador — may not be a high priority to regulate whale safe gear.
However, it will eventually be a requirement.
Even though right whales are not generally known to frequent waters that far north, with the changing ocean environment the mammals occassionaly show up there
“Their distribution has changed. We are hearing every day about shifting conditions in the ocean, with the temperatures, and the right whale movement has shifted,” she said.
“That’s how they ended up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We can’t say that they won’t be seen increasingly in Newfoundland and Labrador waters.”
It’s not only about right whales, either, she said.
Other whales, especially humpbacks, are frequently found entangled in fishing gear around Newfoundland and Labrador.
“These efforts are to protect other species of marine mammals as well.”