This report summarizes project activities for the Commercial Evaluation of a Rope on Command (ROC) Fishing System for the Newfoundland and Labrador Lobster and Crab Fisheries. The project was undertaken between March 2022 and April 2023 by the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI) and is an initiative of the Whalesafe Gear Adoption Fund (WGAF) through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada. The WGAF was initiated to address concerns with fishing gear entanglements with the North Atlantic Right Whale.

The North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW) has been listed as endangered under the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA), with experts estimating there are less than 350 left. Primary threats to the species include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, climate change that is altering migratory patterns and feeding areas, and the impacts of ocean noise on the whale’s ability to communicate, find food, and navigate.

An ROC system is intended to enable harvesters to fish for crab, lobster and other species using fishing gear without tethered to surface with ropes and floats while fishing. Traditional trap harvesting processes involve placing fishing gear, either individual traps or fleets of trawls at or close to the bottom of the ocean to harvest various species often with rope extending to floatation devices on the surface to enable the gear to be located and retrieved at a later point in time. It is these vertical ropes that have been identified as posing significant entanglement threats, and priority has been placed on finding an alternative approach to harvesting.

DFO enlisted CCFI to lead a project to advance ROC technology development and adaptation goals in Newfoundland and Labrador. CCFI is a not-for-profit Separately Incorporated Entity (SIE) of Memorial University. Since 1989, CCFI has supported industry related projects to drive innovation and technological advancements in solving industry problems related to the sustainability, efficiency, and profitability of those involved in the sectors. CCFI actively promotes research and development in the aquaculture, capture fishing, and fish processing sectors while utilizing both the human and facilities assets and resources of the Marine Institute (MI), Memorial University, and other academic and research institutions.

The project evaluated a ROC fishing system being developed by Ashored Inc. in partnership with eSonar Inc.

Activities included:

• Rigorously testing the technology to ensure it meets functionality, quality, endurance and adaptable to current harvester fishing practices in NL fishery. The testing methodology allowed identifying deficiencies and supported informed modifications to equipment/technology prototypes prior to CCFI harvester trials. A reliable and usable system will ensure easier adoption by harvesters and industry as a whole.
• Support training of harvesters on the use and maintenance of the ROC system. Training also included staff at MI’s Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources (CSAR), the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology (CTec), along with CCFI. This allowed for the ongoing training and tech support to harvesters required after two year project.

The scope of fisheries for this project includes inshore and offshore snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio), American lobster (Homarus americanus) and Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) from cod pots. The evaluation includes fishing in trawls/fleets as well as single pot. Water depths investigated included 50m to 300m.

The project team assembled had significant expertise in the areas of marine institutional and field testing, use of flume tank, acoustic tank and pressure chamber operations. The team also was well versed in a variety of research and fishing vessel operations and various fishery operations as well as office operations, leadership, project and budget management.

Project team members included Keith Hutchings and Janet Kielly from CCFI, Mark Santos from MI’s CSAR, Annette White from Dockridge Digital Inc., and Phil Walsh and other staff from WSS Inc. Professional Services. At various times over the course of the project, CCFI’s Industrial Liaison Officers (ILO) Sean Macneill and Jason Card were engaged in the project.

The project team was engaged throughout the course of the project, meeting weekly to review status including accomplishments, upcoming activities present on the project plan, decisions required, discuss risk/issues and budget review.

CCFI engaged harvesters who they had worked with before on various projects and/or through industry engagement and others known to be engaged in adoptive technology and eager to participate in innovation in industry. Harvester selection focused on crab, lobster and cod fishers who fished inshore, mid shore and offshore with various vessel size and crew compliments. CCFI explored different geographical regions, as well as fishing zones in its selectivity.

There were seven (7) primary activities to be completed over the course of the contract period. These activities are highlighted below.

The project’s testing methodology was planned to take place across three (3) phases and included:

• Pre-commercial testing
• Field testing
• Commercial testing with harvesters.

Testing during the 3 phases led at times to engineering and other remediations and often resulted in repeat testing of a previous stage. System enhancements were undertaken or in response to a failure of some aspect of the ROC system. As a result, the methodology did not always follow a linear progression from pre-commercial to field testing to commercial testing with harvesters.

One of the projects' priorities was pre-commercial testing of the technology as presented to CCFI. This process was to assess the functionality of unit in current NL fisheries, related to water depth and pressure, rope and float types, battery and acoustic signal and to develop operating harvester testing procedures. This stage of testing was conducted in a controlled environment to learn information valuable to adequately plan for the field and harvester engagement phases of the project.

The Field testing phase supported the project team to gain on water/vessel experience in the operation of the technology in a controlled environment prior to engaging harvesters in testing. This phase also allowed continued remediation in partnership with technology partners and refining standard operating procedures.

The commercial testing phase with harvesters was to introduce harvesters to the new (ROC) technology and was the most important aspect of the project. It was this process which allowed direct feedback from commercial harvesters through fishing trials on their vessels and gain insight into the ability to adopt the technology in current practices and environment, and what enhancements are needed today and, in the future, to make it fully adaptable to the fisheries.

Through the product research, testing and engagement activities for the ROC project, CCFI and its project team identified a number of key findings, conclusions and recommendations to guide the refinement and future development of ROC systems as a key mitigation technology for the fishing industry in meeting the sustainability challenge of potential Right Whale entanglement. These findings are based on the potential application of the ROC system in all aspects of NL Fishery – inshore, mid-shore and offshore in deep water conditions found in the Newfoundland and Labrador’s crab fishery. They are guided by the input of experienced fish harvesters who have an intuitive understanding of what can work and what cannot, and equally what might be feasible from an operational and financial perspective.

Key findings during the execution of the defined methodology during the project included:

• Cage (engineered new design for greater water depth)
• Water Penetration (improve design to reduce water affecting functionality at greater depth)
• Battery Functionality(non-reliable battery life proposed by manufacture – enhance battery dependability)
• Connectivity reliability between deckbox and MOBI on fishing vessels (software enhancements and upgrades)
• Deckbox instability
• Inaccurate reading of location of Unit
• Issue with cage cover release on acoustic release retrieval - (redesign of key and cover redesign)
• Increased depth - (required increased rope)
• Rope entanglement - (determination to use floating rope in unit – rather sinking rope)
• Rust on cage (non-eroding paint to avoid rust on unit)
• Stability of cage unit on ocean seabed (stability runners attached to units)

A key part of the engagement with harvesters was informal observations and exchanges during the harvester testing but also, formal interviews with harvesters following testing and trials. While harvesters were surprised by the reliability of the ROC system and expressed a desire to engage in further testing in a commercial fishery setting, there remained many concerns among harvesters that will help guide the next stage of ROC product development.

These include:

• System identification on seabed after deployment due to tide and currents. Traditional high flyers/buoys on surface will be no longer be part of the fishing exercise.

• Size of cage unit holding rope and relevant space on deck of fishing vessel to stack and/or store units both to and from fishing grounds and as well at reset. Weight of cage units depending on rope type and water depth lead to excessive heavy units for deployment and retrieval.

• On retrieval of units after acoustic release, the ability to identify buoy on surface at nighttime, in fog and other unfavorable conditions, can lead to excessive time and fuel to search.

• Ability of unit to surface in areas of high current - at times in these areas, current and related drag will submerge large 50-inch buoys.

• How do you know if other harvesters have already set in the area? Harvesters use sight to locate other harvester buoys on the surface. That will not be the case with the ROC system – this could cause many fleets to become tangled, and harvesters could set their gear over other harvesters’ fleets causing major problems.

• The shape of the ROC system for the crab fishery does not fit well on the current vessels and will take up a lot of space. Also, the large cage for deep water is very heavy and cumbersome on deck. Harvesters suggested if the ROC system could be modified to attach to a current crab pot, then it would eliminate the extra space needed as the rope could be packed into the first crab pot in each fleet and that pot could be stacked with the other pots.

• The lobster fishery in Fortune Bay uses fleets of pots and the system works well with their setup. It would not work well with many current lobster fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador where harvesters use single pots - having a ROC system on each pot would be cost-prohibitive.

• The cost of the system is always an important factor as most harvesters stated that to have at least two units on each fleet of pots, have the transducer mounted in the vessel, and buy the deck box and notepad/software, would run them between $20,000 and $50,000 depending on the fishery and the amount of gear each fishery uses.

• Harvesters also stated they do expect to be a little slower hauling the ROC system, but they said they would adjust quickly and were more concerned about packing the unit as the rope is being retrieved. If there is not a specific container to allow for 200+ FTM (365m) to be coiled into as it is coming off the hauler this would add a lot of time. The current fish pans that are on the vessel now are not large enough. Once the line is in the container, it can be dumped into the ROC quickly, and the system can be reset.

Product considerations were defined across three key areas including:
• Design
• Adaptation
• Financial

Specifically, these considerations included:
• Reset Process Considerations
• Cage Design/Shape and Weight
• Battery Life in Cold Water
• Technology Updates
• Rope Type
• Proven Reliability
• Resources needed
• Speed of locating the equipment
• Gear conflict - awareness of other gear
• Distance between drop and land
• Concern of Stability at seabed
• Space on vessel
• Redundant Equipment
• Fuel Increase
• Cost of unit

Fuller adaptation and use of the ROC system require further research and project development.

Recommendations include:
• Battery life improvement
• Hydrophone/transducer
• Buoy work
• Beacons
• Cage development
• Reliability testing
• Product comparisons

View the full project here!