Crafty Killer Whales Are Harassing Alaskan Fishing Boats

Hungry orcas are making off with tens of thousands of pounds of cod and halibut

Orca Blowing
This adorable orca could be plotting its next heist. DeWaine Tollesfrud - Flickr/Creative Commons

Life on an Alaskan fishing boat is not easy. The Bering Sea is cold. The work is brutal. And if anything goes wrong, you are far from help. Now, fishing rigs have a new challenge to contend with: killer whales. As Suzanna Caldwell reports for the Alaska Dispatch News, pods of orcas are harassing fishing boats.

It’s a heated battle, writes Caldwell—and, she says, “the whales are winning.” More and more orcas are being spotted in the Bering Sea, and now the killer whales appear to be targeting their lines, stripping clean their hooks and stealing black cod and halibut from specific boats. They’re capable of chowing down on tens of thousands of fish at one time, Caldwell reports, and often they only leave behind the fish lips—still attached to the hook.

The problem has gotten so bad that some in the industry are appealing to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a regional council with jurisdiction over the federally designated Exclusive Economic Zone off Alaska, for help.

Alaskan fishing boats use longlines to snare fish. As their name implies, they’re fishing lines—sometimes miles long—anchored to boats. In the case of both cod and halibut fishing, they’re set on or near the bottom. Hundreds of anchored hooks make them dangerous places for fish, and boats use tech like sonar and GPS to ensure an even more efficient catch.

Orcas have long known how to use those fish-filled lines as a smorgasbord. In 2014, researchers estimated that thieving orcas can steal up to 69 percent of a boat’s fish, impacting nearly seven percent of Alaska’s Pacific halibut catch and costing hundreds of dollars of lost time per day.

As the Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton reported in 2015, the conniving whales have convinced many fishing operations that it’s time to abandon longlines for baited steel traps like the ones used to catch crabs. Bernton reports that the orcas and other whales hear fishing boats’ propellers and know it’s snack time.

There’s another reason to ditch longlines: the environment. As William K. Stevens reports for the New York Times, the cutting-edge technology that’s been added to the age-old technique is so efficient that they can quickly deplete species, and they’ve been linked to the deaths of sea birds like albatross.

The orcas aren’t exactly environmental warriors—rather, they’re savvy, social animals with a big appetite. But if they keep bugging Alaska’s fishing business, they could inadvertently make this age-old fishing technique obsolete.