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Activists urge reforms after Bering Sea trawlers haul up 9 dead orcas

Orcas spotted in the Bering Sea in August 2023.
Courtesy of Dustin Unignax̂ Newman
Orcas spotted in the Bering Sea in August 2023.

Updated on 9/27/23 at 7:45 p.m.

Federal officials are looking into the deaths of nine orcas that were hauled up by groundfish trawlers in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries this year, and conservation groups say more needs to be done to prevent such deaths.

According to NOAA Fisheries, a tenth whale was released alive, but the nine other orcas incidentally caught in trawl nets weren’t so lucky.

“NOAA Fisheries is analyzing collected data to determine the cause of injury or death and determine which stocks these whales belong to through a review of genetic information,” said Julie Fair, public affairs officer with the federal agency’s Alaska office, reading from a statement published Thursday. She declined to be interviewed, except to read the statement aloud.

Killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires boat owners or operators to report the deaths and injuries of the mammals during commercial fishing and survey operations.

Fair said NOAA Fisheries monitors bycatch of protected species to determine whether the animals were dead before being caught or were killed or seriously injured by commercial gear.

The vessels involved in these incidents weren’t named, but Fair said the boats involved were all required to carry two federal observers on board.

This isn’t the first time killer whales have been caught in trawl gear off Alaska, but the numbers seem to have spiked this year.

“Nine, ten killer whales is too many,” said Shari Tarantino, head of the Seattle-based advocacy group Orca Conservancy, which advocates for the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population that roams from California to Southeast Alaska. “And if it’s just this year, something needs to be done in the future to mitigate these atrocities, frankly.”

Chris Woodley, head of the Groundfish Forum — the Seattle-based association that represents Bering Sea trawlers — declined to be interviewed, providing a written statement to KUCB instead. In it, he said that vessels are experimenting with gear modifications that may prevent whales from entering trawl nets, and that the Amendment 80 trawl boats voluntarily stopped fishing on Sept. 9, with more than three months left in the season, because of the orca bycatch.

Fishing boat encounters that harmed or killed orcas in Alaskan waters were rare until recently, according to the statement, first reported by the Anchorage Daily News. NOAA reported just seven killer whale mortalities or serious injuries resulting from fishing gear entanglement between 2014 and 2020.

“In 2023, our captains have reported an increase in the number of killer whales present near our vessels, where they appear to be feeding in front of the nets while fishing,” the statement reads in part. “This new behavior has not been previously documented and marine mammal scientists are not sure why this change has occurred.”

Biologists estimate there are about a thousand fish-eating orcas in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands region.

Tarantino said it’s important to protect the species for future generations.

“We're not saying stop trawling, even though I think trawling is unbelievably devastating to the ocean animals and the beings that live there,” she said. “But to continue taking this bycatch is just insane. It's destroying our future, in my opinion. You know, if the ocean goes, we go.”

Biologist Deborah Giles, the science and research director for the Washington-based nonprofit Wild Orca, said she wasn’t surprised when she heard about the nine orca deaths.

“I was glad that [NOAA was] finally recognizing it publicly,” she said. “Of course, my cynical brain wonders how often this is happening when it was not reported — or at least not released publicly. I'm very glad that this is going to be investigated.”

Giles said the industry needs to figure out a safe way to keep animals from interacting with fishing vessels and reduce bycatch of non-targeted species.

“We'd ask NOAA to come up with some new protocols for ensuring that this doesn't happen again in the future,” she said. “NOAA is responsible for marine mammals, like killer whales, and they're also responsible for making sure that the fisheries are not jeopardizing non-targeted species. And especially in the trawl industry, bycatch is massive. And it's unsustainable. Initially, what we need to know is what are they doing about this? What steps are going to be taken to minimize this?”

Activists with the “Stop Factory Trawler Bycatch” campaign planned to hold a protest Thursday outside the annual meeting of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers at Seattle’s Four Seasons Hotel.

“Nothing I have seen yet clearly states which trawl vessels were involved,” anti-bycatch activist David Bayes said in a text message.

Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers did not immediately respond to a request for information Wednesday afternoon.

In a written statement, NOAA spokesperson Julie Fair said the agency is working quickly to evaluate the orca-harming incidents and will share findings as soon as possible.

Correction: a previous version of this story said biologists estimate there are about 450 orcas in the Bering Sea, which refers to the mammal-eating population. The orcas hanging around the trawlers are likely fish-eaters. Those numbers are closer to a thousand in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands region.

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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