On-Demand Fishing Gear Feasibility Study

A twelve-month project which will evaluate fishing, legal, regulatory, technological challenges and opportunities of alternative lobster gear, which could reduce whale entanglements.


The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has launched a one-year project, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to comprehensively characterize the issues and challenges associated with the integration of on-demand fishing gear technology into New England fisheries.

On-demand fishing gear, also known as ‘ropeless gear,’ is a type of fishing gear used in ‘fixed gear’ fisheries, or fisheries that use equipment that is left, or ‘fixed’, in place over time to capture fish. On-demand fishing gear replaces traditional vertical buoy lines, which can result in entanglements with marine mammals including North Atlantic right whales, with new gear retrieval and marking methods. Most on-call fishing gear systems consist of submerged buoyancy devices that are activated using time-release mechanism or acoustic signals transmitted from the surface.

The use of on-demand fishing gear has the potential to reduce the impact of entanglement on the right whale population. It also represents a sea change for the fishermen who would use the gear or interact with it on the fishing grounds. This diverse and complicated set of issues warrants a thorough analysis, and the urgency of this important conservation and economic issue is motivating DMF to act quickly. Our project will ‘close the loop’ on the subject by analyzing the unaddressed opportunities, challenges, and requirements for the use of on-call fishing gear.

While a great deal of work has focused on how on-call fishing gear might be used to reduce risk to endangered marine life, our project will be the first of its kind designed to evaluate how implementation of the gear would impact our iconic fisheries and ocean management system from all perspectives. Our project will evaluate the issues using interviews with experts in the field, synthesize perspectives across diverse sectors including fishermen, scientists, and law enforcement officials, and analyze the technical, legal & regulatory, and socioeconomic challenges and opportunities of on-call fishing gear. We will develop a synthesis report on these issues and produce a set of recommendations for further policy development work.

Our project will be seeking input from six categories of fishery experts:




1. Trap gear fisheries stakeholders

Lobster trap fishermen

Stakeholders participating in fixed gear fisheries in which on-demand fishing gear may be deployed or required will have to fundamentally alter virtually all aspects of their operations

2. Non-trap fisheries stakeholders (mobile, fixed gear)

Scallop (dredge), groundfish (trawl, gillnet), other trap fishermen

Stakeholders participating in fisheries operating near or within fishing grounds in which on-demand fishing gear is used will interact with the gear and may need to acquire equipment allowing them to visualize the gear

3. Managers and policy experts

State, federal agency staff, NEFMC/ASMFC, marine law experts

Fishery managers and marine law/policy experts determine the ways in which on-demand fishing gear might affect fishing effort, the regulatory environment, bycatch, habitat impacts, and the manner in which they interact with fishing gear for research and management purposes

4. Technologists

Gear experts, database managers, technicians

Technologists may have expertise pertaining to the physical design and specifications of on-call fishing gear including its use and maintenance requirements, costs, relevant telecommunications, mapping and marking hardware/software, digital security and encryption, marine acoustic signaling, and server/database management

5. Scientists/ Economists

Academic staff, federal agency specialists, conservation organization staff

Scientists and economists possess knowledge pertaining to the impacts of on-demand fishing gear to the ocean environment and the impacts of requirements to use on-demand fishing gear to various financial, social, cultural, and operational aspects of fishermen and fisheries individually and collectively

6. Law Enforcement

State, federal law enforcement officers

Marine law enforcement officers are familiar with the legal and regulatory environment in which on-demand fishing gear would operate and must be able to remotely identify, retrieve, interact with, and re-deploy on-demand fishing gear


DMF will be interviewing each project participant about four discrete subjects:

1. Utility

Using on-demand fishing gear requires fundamental changes to virtually all the operational aspects of fishing. However, many of these changes are not well characterized. For example, the on-the-water dynamics of the use of this gear, including the ways in which it is armed, deployed, located, retrieved, stowed, and maintained, have not been comprehensively or technically assessed nor described. There exists a wide variety of fixed gear fishery stakeholder types, including for example inshore, offshore, ‘large-boat’, and ‘small-boat’ fishermen. Regional variability influences the ways in which fishermen use their gear and, consequently, the ways in which their operations would be modified to incorporate on-demand fishing gear. In addition, fisheries managers, scientists, and law enforcement officers will at times interact with on-call buoy gear and must modify their operations accordingly.


2. Technology

Weighted traps, vertical lines, and surface buoys are used by fishermen to accomplish three essential functions: anchor and locate gear, signify ownership of gear, and facilitate the mechanics of gear retrieval. On-demand fishing gear must replicate each of these functions in an efficient manner, subject to high throughput and repetitive use, in order to be successful.

Locating on-demand fishing gear, identifying ownership, and the related process of calling the correct gear to the surface, will require significant new electronic approaches. Many have been proposed, although the technical specifications for and requirements of such a system have not been comprehensively evaluated. In New England, a variety of fixed and mobile gear fisheries co-exist in the same area and gear conflicts are a serious concern with on-call fishing gear systems that we will evaluate in this project.

The development of a virtual gear marking system is necessary before on-demand fishing gear techniques can be implemented outside of an experimental scale. In order to reduce costly and potentially deadly gear conflicts, information about the position and orientation of on-demand fishing gear-equipped gear must be reliably available in real-time to all fixed and mobile gear fishermen in the area. In addition, documentation about the permit holder and trap number must be available to law enforcement and fisheries managers. We will use information gathered through our project to describe these important technological and data-access issues. Our analysis will characterize the most pressing hurdles to the virtual gear marking system and provide a detailed prioritization of next steps for research and development regarding technology hurdles.

3. Laws/regulations

Fisheries managers and marine law enforcement must contend with a wide range of concerns while managing and enforcing fisheries management plans. These responsibilities would be dramatically affected by a switch to on-demand fishing gear, including the enforcement of trap limits and trap modifications and the spatial-temporal management of gear in the ocean. A crucially important part of DMF’s scoping process will be the evaluation of the ways on-demand fishing gear would impact how fisheries are managed and monitored. Solutions to these impediments are vital to the development of on-demand fishing gear technologies, as well as a thorough understanding of the outcome if no solution exists. We will investigate the spatial use, ocean zoning, and enforcement issues involved with on-call fishing gear.

4. Socioeconomics

The American lobster fishery is one of the most important fisheries in New England and accounts for around $600M in revenue. However, most fishermen are owner-operators, and profit margins are often thin. The implementation of on-demand fishing gear would have substantial and widespread economic impacts on the lobster fishery, other marine users including fisheries and other sectors, and regulatory agencies. We will work across all relevant sectors to evaluate the economic challenges and ramifications of on-demand fishing gear, as well as the direct and indirect consequences of its implementation. There are also potential social implications of on-demand fishing gear, due to the territorial nature of the lobster fishery and the current methods used by the industry for addressing spatial issues.

At the conclusion of our project, we will have produced a comprehensive report that will address all aspects of on-demand fishing gear, illuminating future discussions for its use in our important fisheries and in our critical efforts to protect marine life.

DMF and all of our stakeholders are leading the way towards an even more prosperous, sustainable, and environmentally protective ocean management system. If you would like to learn more about this project or discuss how to participate, please contact ropelessproject@mass.gov

DMF’s On-Demand Fishing Gear Feasibility Report Released

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has completed the first phase of a two-year project, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to comprehensively characterize the issues and challenges associated with the integration of on-demand fishing gear technology into New England lobster fisheries.

In our report, Assessing the Feasibility of On-Demand Gear in New England Lobster Fisheries, we present an up-to-date assessment of the issues and make a series of recommendations for researchers and policymakers who are working on on-demand gear. The report, authored by DMF contractor Noah Oppenheim of Homarus Strategies LLC, contains information gleaned from over 130 hours of interviews and a two-day workshop with dozens of experts including fishermen, conservationists, law enforcement professionals, fishery managers, and scientists.

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