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Cost of Ropeless Fishing More Than Just Price of Gear

First published in Landings, September 2023

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries released a report titled “Estimating the Costs of Using On-demand Gear in Massachusetts Lobster Fisheries” in July. The report found that if on-demand, or “ropeless,” gear had been used by all commercial lobstermen in Massachusetts last year, annual revenue from the lobster fishery would have dropped by $40 million; approximately 3.5 million fewer pounds of lobster would have been landed.

The scope of the report is limited to the Massachusetts lobster fishery. It does not consider the impacts of adopting on-demand gear in lobster fisheries outside of Massachusetts, the interaction of this gear with fisheries interacting with Massachusetts lobster gear or enforcement costs.

Ropeless fishing gear is the subject of intense interest by the federal government and environmental organizations because it removes vertical line from the water, lessening the risk that an endangered North Atlantic right whale or other whale species could get entangled. The gear typically consists of a buoy, attached to a lobster trap, that is released either by a time-release mechanism or by acoustic signals transmitted from the surface.

Other studies have looked at the economic cost to lobstermen to purchase ropeless gear. This report looks at both the cost to buy the gear and also the costs associated with fishing it. A computer model was developed to estimate the time required to use ropeless gear based on factors including vessel length, gear configuration, and fishing area. Other data incorporated into the model included data from NOAA’s ropeless gear testing program, economic assessments based on surveys of vessel owners/operators, and geospatial analyses.

The computer model’s results indicate that the complete conversion of Massachusetts state and federal lobster fishing vessels to ropeless gear would have numerous economic effects.

  1. The average per-trap throughput rate (the time required to haul, sort catch, and redeploy) would have increased by 1.82 minutes, inversely proportional to the number of traps fished per trawl;

  2. The average annual net revenue across all Massachusetts lobster fishing vessels using on-demand gear, assuming the gear would be acquired using a low-cost loan, would have been -$29,300, a decrease of $47,263 per vessel on average;

  3. The average annual net revenue among all lobster fishing vessels, assuming all on-demand gear acquisition costs were subsidized, would have been $1,377, a decrease of $16,586 per vessel on average;

  4. The average Massachusetts statewide lobster landings value would have decreased by $40.81 million;

  5. Lobster landings in Massachusetts would have been reduced by 3.74 million pounds.

The report goes on to say that the scenarios produced by the computer model “represent the upper bounds of potential economic impact to lobster fishing operations, additional operational issues that are unknown or poorly characterized at this time could increase costs further.” The report notes, however, that as more effort is made to improve ropeless gear, it may become less expensive and time-consuming to operate.

The full text of “Estimating the Costs of Using On-demand Gear in Massachusetts Lobster Fisheries” can be found here.

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