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Electrifying Nova Scotia’s inshore lobster fleet faces hard realities

Nova Scotia’s inshore lobster fishery is being touted as the ideal nursery for the future of net-zero carbon fishing.

A coalition involving environmental advocacy group Oceans North, the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association and a handful of high-tech startups will unveil a lobster fleet de-carbonization study over the coming weeks.

The data on fishing vessel energy usage collected by Halifax-based Rimot for the study will inform the design of the first fully electric fishing vessel — which the Membertou First Nation aims to build at its Sydport shipyard in 2025.

The ultimate prize, albeit a distant one, for these groups is to design a vessel and infrastructure that allows the northern Nova Scotia lobster fleet to become a giant battery backup for green energy production during the months of the year they aren’t fishing.

“We have to be at zero emissions by 2050 – that’s the net zero legislation in Canada,” said Brent Dancey, director of marine climate action for Oceans North.

“So that’s really the problem we’re solving.”

But easy solutions on the water are about as common as mermaids.

Despite advances in battery technology that have made fully electric cars competitive on land, the weight and upfront cost of the energy storage needed to take a 40-foot boat on even a short trip from the wharf remain prohibitive.


Arisaig is about as good as it gets.

The Antigonish County community looks northwest out across the relatively protected waters of the Northumberland Strait.

Its harbour is home to 22 fishing crews who  leave the wharf through May and June of each year at sunrise (about 5 a.m.) and typically return before lunch to land their lobster.

“I see global warming as the biggest risk to our fishery in the medium to long term,” said Andrew Arbuckle.

“My thought was that in addition to the day to day, what can we do as an industry to reduce our impact and also protect the ocean we make our living on?”

The 36-year-old grew up fishing with his father from  the Arisaig wharf.

Like many of the community’s youth, he had to leave before he could come home.

For Arbuckle, that meant a degree in environmental engineering and a career in renewable energy systems.

Last year, he bought out his father’s licence and 40-foot fibreglass boat built just up the road in Doctor’s Brook by David MacDonald.

Down in its bilge is a 500-horsepower Cat diesel engine.

New generations bring new ideas to old professions.

Arbuckle teamed up with Halifax based high-tech marine monitoring and data analytics company Rimot to participate in the lobster fleet decarbonization study.

Their sensors monitored the big Cat down in the bilge through each second of the two-month season. Calculating the power demand as Arbuckle idled out from the wharf each morning, then laid the throttle down to lift the semi-planing up on the water, pushing her 20 knots towards his traps.

Then the boat settled back down in the water as he eased off the throttle and engaged the hauler, bringing up strings of eight traps from the bottom of the Northumberland strait to be fished on the washboard, baited and sent back down again.

At Arisaig and along much of the Northumberland Strait and up into where it becomes St. George’s Bay, many of the fishermen have berths (though not all). Dictated by tradition from an era when farmers fished the waters directly below their land grants, those with them typically have all their 255 traps within a relatively small area of bottom fairly close to shore.

That means they get back earlier and steam around less than lobster fishermen on the Eastern Shore or Southwest Nova — making them the ideal testbed for battery-powered boats.

Over his six to 10 hours on the water each day, Arbuckle burns 50-80 litres of diesel.

It accounts for about 10 per cent of his enterprise costs.

 “Through our work we have found that less than 500kwh can be sufficient for the many lobster boats that fish a 8-12 hour day,” reads a written response from Rimot’s chief operating officer Trevor Henniger.

“To help put this in perspective this is about 3-4 times the amount of batteries you might find in a large electric sedan or pickup truck. The rated power requirements for electric drives are somewhat similar to their current diesel counterparts.”

Electric ferries, pleasure and tour boats already exist — the battery packs, control systems and motors are available on the commercial market.

But fishing is a business and the boats  used have evolved to accommodate the weight and power of inboard engines (first gas and then diesel through the latter half of the 20th century).

While Oceans North’s Dancey said it was too early to predict the price of a system, SaltWire did some of its own research.

A 500 kilowatt-hour Trident Versa marine battery pack manufactured by Spear Power Systems in the United States sells for $477,850 to $511,950 Cdn (depending on whether its air or liquid cooled).

That’s about the price of a new 40-foot Northumberland, everything included.

The battery pack weighs 4.6 tonnes — about double the weight of that big Cat in Arbuckle’s bilge.

Because no fully electric fishing vessels exist, comparisons are difficult to find.

The closest (and it’s not very close) are two new Maid of the Mist catamarans launched in 2020 to take tourists in blue rainslickers to wonder at the immensity of Niagara falls.

The 90-foot aluminum catamarans were the first fully electric commercial vessels built in the United States. They are equipped with two 400-kilowatt (536-horsepower) electric motors powered by Trident Versa marine battery packs split between their twin hulls that have a combined power storage of 316 kilowatt-hours.

They push the catamarans to a cruising speed of eight knots with a maximum speed of 11 knots.

According to the online publication InsideEvs, they consume 13-16 per cent of their total battery capacity on each 20 minute tour then recharge at the wharf as one cargo of tourists is swapped for another.

Cape Islanders

Everything is math.

You could calculate the hydrodynamics of a seagull’s bottom as it rides with bewildering composure up and down the surf.

That’s not what Ephraim Atkinson or William A. Kenney would have done.

The two claimants to the Cape Islander hull design would have carved that swell riding shape nature had perfected over eons out of a junk of softwood, sawed it in half and then again into smaller cross sections from which to take measurements.

In the first decade of the 20th century  Atkinson and Kenney were like Arbuckle is now, youngish men making their mark on a changing fishery.

The power source of the future then wasn’t going to be the capricious wind — it was to be the banging cast-iron make and break gas engines built at foundaries in Lunenburg and Bridgewater.

That meant a new hull to capitalize on the engine’s strengths and accommodate its demands.

The Cape Island design spread from the minds of its two builders on its eponymous isle to every harbor around our peninsula of a province where keels were getting laid.

Over the past century the Cape Islander has evolved to accommodate growing diesel motors, different fisheries, sea conditions and, increasingly, federal regulations.

To fish safely offshore in the highly lucrative southwest Nova winter lobster fishery, they’ve grown immensely wide compared to length — new vessels are often 31 feet wide by 50 feet long.

Up in Northumberland Strait where shallow waters make for high choppy waves close together, they’ve evolved into a sublineage known as the Northumberland.

Fine up forward to cut through the waves, they straighten out back aft so that large diesels can lift their semi-planing hulls up on top of the water and reach speeds north of 20 knots.

While Mark Wareham sees the many virtues of the Cape Island design from the viewpoint of those who actually use them, they are inefficient from the perspective of energy consumption.

“I don’t think you could electrify Cape Islanders economically, not with the current technology,” said the professor of naval architecture at Memorial University’s Marine Institute.

“The biggest problem we have is energy storage. It’s the batteries themselves. While the lithium-ion have brought another level of storage, they’ve also brought problems. Those include cost, some susceptibility to catching fire and weight.”

It’s a matter of math.

In particular, the equation that (largely) determines hull speed: 1.34 times the square root of a hull’s length at the waterline.

As a hull travels through the water it creates a bow wave and a stern wave.

The longer the longer the hull, the longer those waves.

Once a vessel starts pushing itself above its hull speed, the bow wave grows in height relative to the stern wave and the boat begins travelling uphill.

To go above hull speed, you need to get on top of the water.

Boatbuilders along the Northumberland Strait have accomplished this by moving the engine’s weight further aft and straightening out the Cape Islander’s hull toward the stern to give it lots of buoyancy.

That 500 Cat in Arbuckle’s Northumberland literally lifts the front of the boat out of the water.

“To go anything above hull speed, you’re dumping more power, climbing over your bow wave and you require more power to get onto a plane,” said Wareham.

“If we were to limit the speed, or if we were open to the removal of the length restriction in federal fisheries regulations, we could make vessels go a little faster for less power.”

To accommodate the battery storage capacity of today, Wareham says you’d need different style hulls and for fishermen to work longer days because they’d be moving slower.

The above-mentioned Maid of the Mist ferries move very efficiently through the water because they are catamarans — they never push above hull speed to climb their bow wave, instead letting the water wrap largely undisturbed around their twin hulls.

Lobster fishing catamarans have been built in this province, but they haven’t caught on amongst fishermen who have to weigh many other factors when deciding on a boat.

Though down on the Eastern and South shores, fishermen use Cape Islanders that travel at their hull speeds, the boats have also grown tremendously wide.

While that makes them stable work platforms during the winter fishery in the North Atlantic, it also makes their energy requirements well beyond what can be provided by current battery technology.

Being first

Hubert Nicholas gets it.

“Yes, I’ve heard some crazy numbers,” said Membertou’s fisheries director of the price of battery packs.

But, he adds, someone has to be first.

Armed with grants worth $500,000 from Google and $250,000 from RBC, Membertou is working with Oceans North and Rimot to contract the design of the first fully electric fishing boat.

Then there’ll be the need for more funding, of a yet-to-be determined amount, to build that boat in the First Nation’s boatyard at Sydport.

Nicholas expects the hull design to be akin to the eight Northumberland style boats already fished by Membertou, but that’s subject to what comes out of the design process.

The goal is to build the boat in 2025.

“When we buy a licence, we want to be in for the longevity of it — we’re looking at the long-term health of the fishery and the environment,” said Nicholas.

“Yes, the upfront cost is going to be higher. But the more battery-operated vessels that are being built, the price will go down. What we’re looking to do here is prove the technology and the ability of it. Once we prove that and show industry it is a viable option, we’re hoping the federal and provincial governments step up and reduce the cost to the end user.”

Rimot’s vision to offset that upfront cost is to have the boats earn money for their owners during the eight to 10 months of the year many of them aren’t fishing.

The main struggle for the increased wind and solar electricity production the provincial government is counting on to help wean us off coal is that they’re intermittent power sources.

While the renewables have become cost competitive, when it’s cloudy or calm you need either another electricity source or energy storage.

“On one hand, the vessel owner has the opportunity to realize on additional income and environmental benefit of electrification both in-season and off-season by providing the ability for the on-board batteries to be used to support the electricity grid while connected,” said Henniger of Rimot’s vision for an electrified fleet.

“On the other hand the grid gets cost effective access to energy storage at the times of the year it needs it most. This helps bring more renewable energy online and reduces use of high greenhouse gas emitting sources of electricity generation.”

Maybe, just slow down

Not all fishermen see the benefit of electrification.

Among them was an older fisherman in Arisaig didn’t want his name used being used.

 “I was excited to go to the boat show in Moncton and see that hybrid,” he said.

“So I climb the steps and look down in her and there’s a 500 Cummins (diesel engine).”

He was looking at the Hybrid 1 — a fibreglass Northumberland unveiled this April at the Moncton Boat Show by Prince Edward Island engineering firm Aspin Kemp & Associates.

Hybrids, like Aspin Kemp’s and the one developed by Halifax’s Glas Ocean, see an electric battery and motor coupled to the vessel’s shaft via a belt and coupler.

They attempt to avoid the cost and weight of a fully electric system  by allowing a fisherman to steam out to their gear at speed using the diesel, then transition to the electric system for hauling their traps and steaming between dumps at hull speed (8-10 knots).

While significant federal and provincial funding have been directed towards the systems’ development, they haven’t actually been put to use fishing lobster for an entire season.

An Aspin Kemp spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sue Molloy of Glas Ocean said the system they’re developing would use a 98 kilowatt-hour battery.

In 2020, Glas Ocean added their system to an older Northumberland for Ambassatours. Funded by $500,000 from the federal and provincial governments, the hybrid system, which included a 28 kilowatt-hour battery, made the Alutasi the first boat approved by Transport Canada to carry over 12 people to be capable of operating fully electric part of the time.

The Alutasi is not currently working as a tour boat.

Glas Ocean is currently in talks with fishermen as they attempt to convince 10 of them to sign up for their hybrid system.

The goal being that through economies of scale and standardization, they can reduce costs.

But to get takers, they’ll have to convince them the system provides a benefit to both the environment and their enterprises’ bottom line.

Molloy wouldn’t say what the system costs.

“What I’ll say is we’re working toward a solution that can be paid off for the same cost for the fuel and maintenance costs in under 10 years,” said Molloy.

While the electronic components and motors have a life of decades, the anticipated battery life is eight to 10 years. A fishermen who had priced a hybrid system, but didn’t want his name used, said the battery pack runs about $70,000 with the hybrid system costing upwards $120,000 on top of the cost of a diesel engine.

Anticipated fuel savings are 40-60 per cent — though that hasn’t been established in the real world yet.

Back in Arisaig, the elder fisherman who’d taken a look at the Hybrid 1 had another way to save fuel: go slower.

The 600-hp diesel powering his 40-foot Northumberland burns about 80 litres a day.

A friend who fishes a little farther out than him in a 37-foot boat powered by a 220-hp John Deere burns about 50 litres a day.

“He doesn’t push her as hard and he’s out a little longer, but he gets the same job done,” he said.