Virtual buoys and time triggered traps reduce risk to endangered North Atlantic right whale, but reactions among fishers in US and Canada are mixed

Ropeless tech avoids the need for vertical lines Photograph: EdgeTech

Ropes that spring to the water’s surface when summoned and virtual buoys could hold the key to saving one of the world’s most endangered whale species, scientists and conservation groups have said.

As the North Atlantic right whale nears the brink of extinction – amid reports of whales tangled in metres of thick fishing lines and findings suggesting 85% of the population have been entangled at least once – calls have grown for the adoption of ropeless fishing, using gear that does not involve any vertical lines.

“Ropeless was seen as a kind of crazy idea before,” said Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, US. “But now it looks like the only actual solution to the problem.”

In recent years officials in the US and Canada have responded to the dwindling population of whales with a series of closures in key fishing areas, an approach that has at times prompted outcry from fishers, according to marine biologist and WHOI veterinarian Michael Moore.

“Some people say we need to make some hard decisions and let the species go or let the industry go,” said Moore, who heads the Ropeless Consortium, a group that engages researchers, conservationists and industry on ropeless technology. “I don’t believe that’s true.”

Researchers examine a dead North Atlantic right whale in the gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada. Collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear are common causes of death. Photograph: HO/AP

With half a dozen or so companies working to develop ropeless gear, the technology varies widely. At its essence the gear allows traps to be dropped along the seabed without the traditional vertical line, swapping surface buoys for GPS or other tracking technology that indicates the location of traps.

When it is time to retrieve the traps, an acoustic signal or timer triggers the trap to rise to the surface.