Trawl vessels caught 10 killer whales in ’23 off Alaska, federal agency says

federal agency that takes an active role in “shaping international ocean, fisheries, climate, space and weather policies” reported last week one of its teams is “evaluating data collected” on 10 killer whales incidentally caught in Alaska by Bering Sea and Aleutian Island groundfish trawl fisheries in 2023.

In a statement, NOAA Fisheries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said just one whale ended up being released alive. For the other nine, the agency is in the process of determining the cause of injury or death and which stocks these whales belong to through a review of genetic information.

In addition, NOAA Fisheries is reviewing information regarding “a killer whale incidentally caught during the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s longline survey for sablefish and groundfish this summer.” The agency added that on June 7, a dead killer whale was observed entangled in gear on the Central Bering Sea slope.

“The incident was reported and is under review in accordance with required reporting procedures. The center has an incidental take authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act,” the statement reads.

Killer whales, also known as Orcas, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires vessel owners or operators to report to NOAA Fisheries all incidental mortalities and injuries of marine mammals that occur during commercial fishing and survey operations.

In a written statement obtained by the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, the Groundfish Forum, a Seattle-based trawl fishery group, confirmed member vessels were involved in at least some of the whale deaths as well as the one released alive.

“Our fleet is committed to finding solutions to this unprecedented challenge. We have invested in research activities to better understand the change in killer whale behavior and how to avoid them,” a portion of the statement said. “Vessels are experimenting with gear modifications that may prevent whales from entering the net.”

Killer whales’ interactions with vessels

The Anchorage Daily News has done further reporting on this issue and notes killer whales have been drawn to fishing boats off Alaska for decades. Longliners, which drop lines of baited hooks, have generated many encounter reports. The whales strip black cod off hooks and eat the fish as those hooks are brought to the surface.

The vessels have tried multiple tactics to fend off the whales, including blasting heavy metal music from the decks, the media outlet reported.

From 2014 to 2020, seven killer whales died or suffered serious injury due to encounters with all types of fishing gear, according to two versions of a federal study cited by the Groundfish Forum in their written statement.

Groundfish Forum trawler crews have come upon killer whales more frequently and those contacts appear to have intensified this year.

“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 from the Groundfish Forum seen in the Anchorage outlet reads. The Seattle organization called this “new behavior.”

Megan Williams, a fishery scientist with the Ocean Conservancy who has studied killer whale interactions with Bering Sea fisheries for years, told the Anchorage Daily News killer whales are incredibly intelligent animals, and “conflicts arising with trawl fisheries need to be addressed,” along with larger concerns.

“This may represent a conservation concern for killer whales,” Williams said.