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'Pop-up' fishing gear could help prevent whales from getting injured

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A federal judge sided with the shellfish industry on Friday over rules designed to protect endangered whales. On both the East and West Coasts, regulators have been closing fishing seasons to prevent whales from getting injured by equipment. Now a new solution could help solve this - pop-up fishing gear. Lauren Sommer from NPR's Climate Desk has the story.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Dungeness crab season is normally still open this time of year off San Francisco, but no one is fishing for crab right now except for Brand Little.

BRAND LITTLE: So what we're doing here is we're selling some live Dungeness crab.

SOMMER: Little has a big tank full of live crabs on the deck of his boat at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Customers are walking up to buy them directly.

LITTLE: We're the only boat right now.

SOMMER: Crab season was shut down two months early because humpback whales are migrating on the California coast. Crab fishermen use large round traps, or pots, as they're called, that sit at the bottom of the ocean. They have a rope that goes hundreds of feet up to the surface. Whales can get entangled in that rope, which can injure or even kill them.

LITTLE: We've been tossing around several ideas on what we could do different. One of the ideas was pop-up gear.

SOMMER: Pop-up gear is a lot like it sounds. The rope and buoy are coiled up at the bottom of the ocean and kept down there until they pop up.

LITTLE: We press a button, and an acoustic signal triggers a release that allows that buoy to come up, and then we can pull it back. So rather than just sitting out there day and night, it's stored safely on the ocean floor and retrieved when we need it.

SOMMER: Little is part of a state experiment to try out this fishing gear to see what is and isn't working.

LITTLE: For me, it's adapt or die. You know, you got to roll with the punches. This problem isn't going away without changing the way we do stuff.

SOMMER: But that opinion is not popular with other fishermen.

LITTLE: Yeah. I get a lot of flak. I get a lot of flak. There's a lot of guys really upset with me for doing this.

SOMMER: That's because few fishermen are even willing to test the gear that manufacturers and regulators are loaning out.

DICK OGG: As much as I'd like to say, yeah, I see this all happen right away, I have to protect the industry.

SOMMER: Dick Ogg is a crab fisherman just north of San Francisco in Bodega Bay. When I talked to him at the end of December, he was constantly checking his phone.

OGG: ...Each other's gear all the time, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE DINGING)

OGG: Let me check this 'cause this could be...

SOMMER: He was waiting to hear if crab season would finally be opened after more than a month of delay.

OGG: You know, the fishermen are under a lot of stress.

SOMMER: Ogg has also tested pop-up fishing gear and says the technology works in theory, but some fishermen won't test it because they don't want regulators thinking they're OK with it. It's slower than traditional gear. And crab fishermen work with hundreds of traps.

OGG: So economically, you can't say it only takes you a minute longer. If I do one more minute on my pot allocation, that's 5.8 hours a day.

SOMMER: Pop-up gear also costs from several hundred to several thousand dollars per trap. That's a concern on the East Coast, too, in the lobster fishery. Patrice McCarron is policy director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

PATRICE MCCARRON: If we bring in a capital-intensive model, we know our small boats don't have that sort of operating capital. And, you know, there's a very, very strong concern that we're going to lose them. There's not going to be a place for them.

SOMMER: McCarron says fishermen want assurances from regulators that the gear will be rolled out in a way that protects all fishermen. The urgency to figure this out is even higher on the East Coast because of the North Atlantic right whale. Lobster season has been limited there because the whales are at risk of extinction. There's only about 340 of them left.

MARK BAUMGARTNER: How do we fix this problem?

SOMMER: Mark Baumgartner is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who is working with fishermen and gear makers to help improve the technology.

BAUMGARTNER: I think this on-demand system, this ropeless fishing is a very human way to tackle the problem because it's technology. What we're good at is coming up with technology to solve problems.

SOMMER: He says a key step will come later this year when the Federal Government starts working on standards for manufacturers making pop-up gear. The Biden administration is putting an extra $27 million towards the effort in the hope of making this technology something the fishing industries on both coasts will be more open to. Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAREN MORRIS SONG, "THE FEELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.