With the North Atlantic right whale population inching ever closer to extinction, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has awarded $350,000 in grants to help reduce large mammal bycatch in the heavily fished waters off the coasts of New England and Canada. The grants, which will go to the New England Aquarium and a research-based nonprofit called the Sea Mammal Education Learning Technology Society (SMELTS), were awarded last week to develop and study ropeless or breakable rope fishing technology for lobstermen and other trap fishermen. Although the technology has been in development for some time, a slew of money and research has been poured into making ropeless gear a commercial reality — especially as right whale mortalities continue to climb and many lobstermen have to halt their fishing operations due to federally-mandated area closures.

“We’re cranking on this,” said Richard Riels, an engineer with SMELTS who invented his organization’s ropeless fishing technology after seeing one too many entangled sea mammals. “I’m hoping to do more testing in the next couple of days with the grant money.”

With 30 deaths in the last three years, there are now approximately 400 right whales left in the Atlantic Ocean. According to data from NOAA, seven of the 21 deaths in Canadian waters showed evidence of gear entanglement. So did five of the nine in American waters—- meaning that nearly half of all mortalities in recent years resulted from fishing gear.

“Less rope is probably the best,” said Colleen Coogan, who works for NOAA’s regional office as the Marine Mammal Take Reduction Team Coordinator. “Because the more rope where the whales occur, the more chance of an encounter that could become an entanglement and cause serious injury or a mortality. This technology would allow fishing without buoy lines. It allows fishermen to fish, but takes the line out of the water.”

Because of the presence of right whales, as well as humpbacks and others throughout southeastern Massachusetts, NOAA has instituted strict trap and pot closures throughout the region. The closures prevent fishing in the Massachusetts Bay Restricted Area from Feb. 1 through April 30, affecting over 100 lobstering vessels in Cape Cod Bay and beyond.

Currently almost all lobster fishing is done with a rope and buoy system. That way, both lobstermen and law enforcement not only know where their gear is located, but they know where other pots are as well. Yet it’s those very lines in the water, called trawls, that threaten right whales and other large mammal species. Ropeless gear would mean an enormous change for an industry that has relied on the same retrieval and fishing system for centuries.

“We’re just trying to figure out if it can even work,” Mr. Riels said. “That’s what we are trying to do under the grant. To show that it can be seen by other vessels and law enforcement. These are real unknowns. The vertical line and buoy that have been around for 10,000 years are a hard thing to replace.”

Many types of ropeless technologies are being developed across the country. Mr. Riels’s invention — the lobster raft — uses an inflatable bag that attaches to the top of lobster pots. Triggering an acoustic speaker, fishermen would be able to inflate the bag and retrieve the pot as it floats to the surface, with its location being monitored by a digital positioning system. Mr. Riels said that could potentially be done through an app. “It’s basically a cell phone for the

ocean,” he said. “That’s what this technology is . . . You are virtually replacing the vertical line and buoy.”

Ropeless technology is not yet ripe for commercial operations and is in fact illegal. There are numerous questions about its reliability, cost and efficacy for fishermen who depend on sturdy gear for their livelihood. Wayne Iacono, a lobsterman who fishes out of Menemsha, said most of the lobstering community on the Island is opposed to ropeless gear, considering the dense concentration of the Vineyard’s lobster pots and fears that it could lead to lost equipment.

“I don’t know how it could work around here,” Mr. Iacono said. “If you can’t see from the surface, people are going to be setting on top of each other. It’s really going to be a nightmare. It’s just too tight to do that.”

Mr. Riels also understands the challenges — as do the employees of NOAA fisheries who are working with the South Shore Lobstermen’s Association to get the gear in place. While Vineyard lobstermen don’t yet have to worry about area closures, those around Sandwich, New Bedford and other areas of the Cape would rather get out on the water than have to stay on shore for up to six months per year.

Henry Milliken, a ropeless technology scientist with NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said the organization has been working with lobstermen to test a technology that uses acoustic triggers to release gear and buoys from spools atop lobster pots. He said as of Thursday, there had been no failures.

“They’re [the fishermen] the ones who are pushing for it,” Mr. Milliken said. “They’ve come to us, asking for our help. We have a great relationship with them. And we are looking to work with more of them in the future.”

For other lobstermen, a more practicable reality in the short term is using a breakable sleeve technology that allows large marine mammals to tear through ropes if they become entangled. The New England Aquarium’s $125,000 grant is going toward testing the sleeves in waters deeper than 300 feet. They also are using a digital entanglement simulator to test outcomes.

Amy Knowlton, a researcher with the aquarium, said the studies would be done over the next eight months.

“We’re just looking at it from those two angles,” Ms. Knowlton said. “What the fishermen need to haul their gear, and what the whales need to reduce the chance of a negative outcome . . . we’re excited about the work.”

Mr. Iacono said lobstermen on the Vineyard already use breakable-rope technology that includes six hog rings on trap lines. He said the sleeves are probably a more realistic measure for deep-sea commercial lobstermen in the short-term. But Mr. Riels hopes that one day lobstermen may feel comfortable with SMELTS’s fully ropeless technology — for both the future of the industry, and for the future of right whales.

“In the next two years of my life, I will be throwing as much gear in the water as I can and trying to get it back,” he said. “I’m trying to work in the middle, and show fishermen that this is possible, because they’re brilliant, they’re the McGyveres of the scene. And if we can get some systems built and tested, then they can help figure out ways to make it work.”

He concluded: “No one system is going to solve it. It’s going to take all the possibilities, all the technologies and everybody working together to figure it out.”