Lobster pots becoming research platforms

Courtesy photo/LobsterNet plans to attach sensors to lobster traps to collect data on ocean conditions such as acidity, or pH, and temperature.The date would be used to advance understanding of ocean conditions and potentially develop new business elements of a "Blue Economy."

Massachusetts boasts more than 1,200 commercially licensed lobstermen who set more than 300,000 traps in state waters each season — and most of the gear is set without much in the way of credible scientific data on habitat or ocean conditions.

A project call LobsterNet is looking to change the old world approach to the analytics of harvesting lobsters by attaching sensors to the traps to collect data on ocean conditions such as acidity, or pH, and temperature.

The enhanced traps, which automatically will upload the marine data to a satellite network when pulled from the water, will be woven into a data collection network to help advance understanding of ocean conditions and potentially develop new business elements of a "Blue Economy."

"It's really kind of a transformative," said Tom Balf, a Gloucester-based marine consultant on the LobsterNet project. "We're taking an existing device, a lobster trap, and turning it into a research platform. At the same time, we're adding value to the existing practice of going out and putting traps in the water by turning lobstermen into data collectors and researchers."

LobsterNet received a $133,156 grant from the state Seaport Economic Council on Tuesday to begin developing and deploying the low-cost network of lobster pots that can collect and distribute key environmental data for fishermen and researchers alike.

The project's other partners are Gloucester Innovation, the UMass Gloucester Marine Station, the Angle Center for Entrepreneurship at Endicott College, the SigFox network provider and the Scituate-based Lobster Foundation of Massachusetts.

"Data such as temperature and pH will be captured at depth and in greater spatial and temporal resolution than is now possible," the Seaport Economic Council said in a release announcing the grants through its Grand Challenge program to promote Internet of Things, or IoT, technologies to bolster the state's marine economy. "This information will help fishermen and researchers better understand what is affecting lobster habitats in general and individual lobster fertility, lifespan or health in particular."

The sensors used in the project already have been developed, though Balf said they now will undergo further, more rigorous testing as the project ramps up. He said the project's organizers expect to conduct trials with lobstermen "in the early fall and winter" across Cape Ann while simultaneously testing the SigFox wireless communication network.

He said the goal is to deploy about 250 smart traps within the next year along the Massachusetts coastline, beginning next May or June.

Balf also said the project partners are looking at the possibility of tethering additional sensors in specific static locations to provide other real-time data, as well as possibly adding small cameras or hydrophones to assemble even more data streams.

"We really believe this data will help us understand the changing oceans better," Balf said. "It can provide lobstermen with predictable analytics for the best places to place traps, as well as providing them with their own data they can use to have meaningful conversations with fishery managers."

Two other projects received funding from the Seaport Council under the Grand Challenge program.

The New Bedford Port Authority and its partners received $250,000 for its project, "New Bedford Ocean Cluster: Harvesting and Applying Data About the Sea."

The Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay received $69,600 for its project to develop a marine hydrokinetic oceanographic data portal which will have uses for "renewable energy, aquaculture, recreational mariners, educators and the public."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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