In the Bering Sea where fishermen make their living pulling in cod and halibut, one “fish” remains at large: the killer whale. Orcas in the area have been trailing the fishing vessels and robbing them of all of their catch. So how can the fishermen make their living without endangering killer whales?
Killer Whales as Hunters
Killer whales are prime candidates to hunt caught fish off a line. They are skilled hunters and are able to detect different boat sounds and the noises associated with lowering and raising fishing gear into and out of the water. They are also social animals, meaning they can easily teach their newfound information to other whales in their pod.
Killer whales aren’t only active in the Bering Sea. They also follow fishing boats all over Alaska, particularly in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands, and in Japan. But they are most common in the Bering Sea’s continental shelf.
Data on thieving orcas in Japan dates back to the 1950s. Data for the same sea burglars in the Bering Sea is more recent, only collected since 1995, but still points to distressing statistics. Dana Hanselman, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, studied orcas in the area and found that there was an increase in whales going after fish from 2000-2008. After 2008, the numbers vary but Hanselman believes that may be because fishermen are packing up and fishing elsewhere - somewhere without the pesky whales.
The Growing Problem of Predatory Killer Whales in the Bering Sea
Fishermen in the Bering Sea area say they can catch as much as 30,000 lbs of halibut in a single day of fishing. However, when under attack from a hunting pod of killer whales, they’ll bring up next to nothing. Fishermen describe their hooks being stripped clean with the whales leaving behind just the lips of the fish, if anything at all.
They also report that the whales are showing up more often, acting more aggressive and targeting specific boats, plausible given what we know about whales’ hunting and social skills. Even young whales are showing up as their mothers teach them how to go after the halibut and cod the fishermen have caught.
Experiences From Sea
Robert Hanson, the captain of the FV Oracle, described a recent trip he and his crew took to the continental shelf in April of this year. Due to the relentless harassment from a pod of whales, Hanson reported that they lost 12,000 lbs of sellable halibut and wasted 4,000 gallons of fuel trying to outrun them.
On another trip, Hanson was out fishing when he was met with a pod of 50 whales. He tried to continue fishing but after two days had to give up. Hanson described the incident saying, “The pod tracked me 30 miles north of the edge and 35 miles west (while) I drifted for 18 hours up there with no machinery running and they just sat with me.”
What Is the Solution?
Captain of the Aleutian Sable, Hebert, reports seeing more thieving orcas in the last five years than in his 39 years of fishing in the Bering Sea. Hebert’s solution? He uses a sonar device that emits a frequency that is supposed to keep the whales away. However, the signal isn’t strong enough to deter all of the whales. So for now, Hebert stays away saying, “It's not worth it to work so hard only to have your fishing lines stripped 100 percent. It's gotten completely out of control.”
Hebert suggests modifying the methods in which fishermen catch their fish. He believes using pots, instead of hooks, would be the best way to stay one step ahead of the killer whales. A similar technique was used in the Gulf of Alaska when sperm whales were targeting black cod longliners.
Buck Laukitis, a fisherman and member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, recently brought two motions to the council to help address the issue. The first motion allows the council to conduct research on the extent of the killer whale problem. The second motion evaluates the effectiveness of using pots to catch halibut instead of hooks and lines. Both motions were passed unanimously.
Laukitis explained the frustration that he and many other fishermen in the Bering Sea are feeling. He said, “You know how to catch fish, you know the fish are there, and you have the gear, you've done it many times, but the whales can just completely shut you down. We're losing the battle, and that's why we need to adapt.” Hopefully these motions will help give the fishermen a leg up in winning the war.