Killer Whales in the Bering Sea Target Fishermen’s Lines

Fishermen in the Bering Sea can harvest 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of halibut in a single day. But in recent years, pods of killer whales have gone from being an occasional pest to seemingly targeting the fishermen’s lines.

These aquatic mammals strip fishing lines clean and lurk behind vessels. One fisherman reports seeing juvenile whales showing up, presumably because mothers are teaching their young how to target the halibut and black cod the fishermen are trying to catch.

Killer whales have fed from vessels’ catch in the Bering Sea for many years, but in recent years they’ve been getting more aggressive. FV Oracle Captain Robert Hansen described how in April he and his crew lost about 12,000 pounds of sellable halibut and wasted about 4,000 gallons of fuel trying to outrun them.

Killer whales in the Bering Sea are targeting fishermen's lines and eating thousands of pounds of halibut.

Longtime Bering Sea longliner Jay Hebert has tried emitting a sonar frequency designed to keep the whales away, but it’s not strong enough to keep them at bay. Here’s Suzanna Cladwell reporting for Alaska Dispatch News:

“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,” [Hebert] wrote.

Hebert, captain of the Aleutian Sable, said the orca plundering over the last five years is the worst he’s seen in his 39 years of fishing in the Bering Sea.

Since the sonars don’t seem to be working, Hebert has suggested using pots, instead of hooks, to catch halibut—similar to how fishermen harvested black cod in the Gulf of Alaska when sperm whales were targeting longliners.

Fisherman Buck Laukitis, who is also a member of the regional management group that oversees federal fisheries in Alaska, recently introduced two motions to the council: one to research the extent of whales plundering fishing lines, and another to consider whether pots to catch halibut would be a better option to keep whales away from the catch.

Both motions passed unanimously. Although the council is taking a cautious approach to research the extent of the problem, they also understand the need to make changes. “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,” Laukitis told Alaska Dispatch News. “We’re losing the battle, and that’s why we need to adapt.”