Meet Kim Sawicki, an American scientist currently living and working in Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship. Her goal? To advance the development of ropeless technology and help bring about its regular use in pot and trap fisheries around the world. Kim’s vision is to end whale entanglements while also preserving the fishing communities she works with. Here, Kim shares some insights into her work...
What is ropeless gear and what inspired you to work on advancing this technology?
In July of 2018, while in search of a sponsor for my PhD work, I met with Dr. Michael Moore of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I will never forget when he drew for me a trawl of pots book-ended in vertical lines and buoys and expressed to me that the greatest threat to the incredibly endangered North Atlantic right whales existed within those endlines. He told me if there was something as an epidemiologist I really wanted to do to help truly make a difference for whales, it would be to address this issue through the research and improvement of ropeless fishing gear. This is how I tell people I was “roped into ropeless research.” So began my mission to understand ropeless technology and help bring about its adaptation for commercial use in pot and trap fisheries around the world.
Ropeless fishing gear, or ASBRS (Acoustic Subsea Buoy Retrieval Systems) as I like to call them, includes any device that allows for storage of buoys, rope, or lift bags to be stored at depth where they present little or no threat of interaction with whales. These items are stored alongside the first trap in a fleet or trawl of traps and triggered acoustically—like remotely opening a car door—only when a fisher is nearby and ready to haul their fishing gear. This greatly reduces the time that the line and/or buoy are in the water column and presenting a threat to whales or other marine animals.
As a scientist working with engineers, how do you approach developing ropeless gear?
Just like any innovation or invention, there’s a period of testing, customization, and adjustment that must be done. This topic always brings to my mind the invention of the cellular phone and the super tiny and incredibly powerful ones that we have now compared to the bulky suitcase models we had a few decades ago. It’s true that we can’t see the “lines” that attach our phones now, as with landlines, but that doesn’t limit their power or ability to give us the information we need.
This period of adjustment is particularly important for a ropeless device because the approach and technique of every fisher is individual. Also, conditions in different geographic locations present different challenges for every fishing community, so these gears need to be adaptable (which they are!). This also means fishers need to have an attitude of collaboration when they agree to try fishing with these new methods.
One of the things I like to talk to fishers about is “taking the gear out and breaking it.” To us, this means testing how durable it is and how we can best challenge its functionality to make further versions of the technology better and as unbreakable as possible. The ingenuity of fishers and their enthusiasm for trying something new is the most important part of designing something for their use. The creativity and inspiration that I get to experience from them, firsthand, is pretty hard to forget.
Many of the fishers I’ve worked with have been excited and motivated to try something new that will help them reduce their amount of gear loss. I’ve also worked with people who have been directly affected by entanglements; either finding deceased animals in their gear or in the gear of others. It’s been clear to me that, while rare, these occurrences have a meaningful impact on them as humans. I find many of those fishers are even more motivated than their peers to try to help solve this problem and care less about their own gear loss than the life of the animal.
What has been your experience working with ropeless engineers and manufacturers?
For over a year I have collaborated with a large group of ropeless gear manufacturers and engineers to help streamline the testing process as well as the data we collect during it. Every single one of them set aside their own personal and commercial objectives to work together for the benefit of these animals. Something else that I find really inspiring is their willingness to work together to show the interoperability of their systems. They meet regularly with each other, both virtually and in person, to investigate opportunities for collaboration to help prove ropeless fishing as a concept worldwide, and have also shared valuable private internal data with me to help answer many of the questions both fisheries managers and fishers have about their gear.
They’re always very happy to receive feedback from the fishers I’ve worked with to better their designs or to make them more adaptable to other fisheries. In the U.S., they also recently collaborated on a response to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team’s examination of the feasibility of ropeless gear to provide direct answers to concerns about their products raised by federal and state agencies, fisheries managers, fishers, environmental groups, and other vital stakeholders.
What are some of the perceived barriers to the success of ropeless gear?
One of the greatest stated concerns for all is the perceived economic cost of ropeless fishing gear. This could be addressed in its own article, but I truly feel that at the heart of this reluctance to adapt is the fear fisher's experience over a potential loss of control of their local community resource.
Fishing communities all over the world are able to self-police and regulate outsiders and those who do not adhere to local “gentlemen’s agreements” or customs. The loss of the simplest method of self-policing, a colored buoy or buoys at the sea surface, seemingly removes a fisher’s ability to ensure the future of their own catch. To me, this is completely understandable, but absolutely addressable with the use of virtual gear marking through software integration.
Other issues such as mobile gear interaction and overlayment (i.e., setting a trawl over another person’s gear) can be resolved by use of virtual gear marking and vessel tracking technologies, as well as certain areas being deemed “for use by pot fishers only,” which is currently visually designated by the buoys that sit on the sea surface. Ropeless gear will also make it easier to locate pots and traps that have been dragged along the seabed by ocean currents or other types of fishing gear like trawls. This will reduce the amount of lost fishing gear, which represents an economic burden to fishermen, as well as the amount of marine debris overall.
At the end of the day, all of those less-than-desirable mobile and fixed-gear interactions will likely never be wholly resolved, nor those that are caused by local territorial conflicts; not with visual buoys, regulations, nor with software. But the use of ropeless gear could absolutely reduce risk to other mariners posed by buoys that float at the surface, the overall amount of marine debris, as well as the amount of ghost fishing by lost pots or traps.
What’s next on the horizon for ropeless gear?
Ropeless gear testing is currently underway in extreme environments such as the North Sea, Cape Cod, and Canada to test the upper limits of functionality of these gears. We are taking it out and “trying to break it” as much as possible to build these gears up to be as strong and reliable as necessary in any fishery in the world. This is something that is absolutely vital if we are to advance these solutions for future widespread adoption.
Additionally, six manufacturers have been working together to demonstrate how ropeless gear can be used to fish within an area that currently is closed to fishing due to potential risks to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The manufacturer’s collaborative approach to meet this goal, which required the setting aside of competitive interests, really shows their commitment not just to saving whales, but also to ensuring the financial viability of fishers and their communities.
Kim Sawicki is an American scientist currently living and working in Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship. Her work is in collaboration with the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and the Marine Institute (Republic of Ireland). Her nine-month independent research project requires her to travel along the coasts of both countries to work in close contact with entanglement experts, pathologists, engineers, policy makers, and fishing communities. Her past experience working as a public health professional in emergency & disaster medicine cultivated in her a passion for epidemiology and pathobiology. After earning dual degrees in Pathobiology & Veterinary Science and Allied Health Sciences, she made the decision to apply her knowledge and energy to the study of cetacean epidemiology. Her current work focuses on trauma-induced mortalities, namely those involving entanglement in fishing gear. She recently co-founded “Sustainable Seas”, a group focused on empowering individuals, fishing communities, and conservationists to engage in productive and non-judgmental dialogue to help reduce cetacean mortalities. She is dedicated to working with innovative technology, fishers, and engineers to save marine mammals from unnecessary anthropogenic deaths, and to preserve coastal fishing communities as they are.