Longliners say killer whales stealing fish more persistent than ever

Killer whales (Creative Commons photo by Chis Michel)

The battle between killer whales and longline fishermen has been going on for decades in the Bering Sea. Pods of whales will follow boats and pick fish off their lines as they pull them in. Some commercial fishermen say the whales have become so persistent, they have changed fishing grounds to avoid them, but regulators may have a solution.

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When Todd Hoppe, a Homer-based commercial fisherman, targets halibut in the Bering Sea, he never sets foot on deck. He sits on top of his boat with binoculars. He’s on the lookout for killer whales. If they close in as his crew pulls gear, Hoppe will tell them to cut the line, sending it back to the bottom in hopes of preventing a pod from devouring his catch.

“We usually run real short strings, so we can pull it up real fast and get it in before they catch up to me,” Hoppe explained.

Hoppe ties a buoy to the other side of the line, so he can return later to pull it in. He sets his gear 40 to 50 miles apart. All he can do is hope the whales get bored or distracted as he travels long distances, but these days, the old tricks aren’t working.

Traveling further between gear sets or drifting for hours to deter whales burns time and fuel. That’s led Hoppe to end his 23-year stint fishing for halibut near Dutch Harbor.

“I got rid of all that stuff this year,” he said. “I don’t fish out there anymore. They won!”

Currently Hoppe’s on his boat tendering in Upper Cook Inlet. He still longlines for some sablefish, also known as black cod, but he’s shifted his fishing grounds into the Gulf of Alaska, where he can use longline pots. So far, the whales haven’t been able to figure out how to get into them.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates halibut and ground fish in the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians, created a black cod fishery in the gulf this year to feel out how pot fishing might work in the Bering Sea.

“So at this point, no one is targeting halibut in the gulf with pots. It’s incidental catch to the black cod pots,” Buck Laukitis explained. Laukitis is one of five Alaskans that sits on the council. “In the Bering Sea we’re going to look at either the incidental retention of halibut or actually to target them, and that will be a slight difference from the gulf.

The federal regulatory body passed a motion earlier this month to examine the potential regulation shift in the Bering Sea, but those changes won’t be coming anytime soon.

“We’ll take a hard look at it, and we’ll see what regulations need to be changed and do it with public input of course. We’ll see where it leads,” Laukitis said. “Usually it takes a year, even on the easy ones, and I’m not sure this is an easy one.”

The council also agreed research on the issue needs to be done, but who will conduct that research isn’t clear just yet.

Recent studies show the depredation of black cod has increased over the past decade, but Laukitis explains the council also wants numbers on halibut.

Marine mammal scientist Craig Matkin has studied killer whales’ interactions with fisheries and their populations along the Aleutian chain for decades.

“Killer whales have gradually gotten more and more attuned to taking fish off longlines. It started with black cod and now it’s spread to also halibut out in the eastern Aleutians,” Matkin said.

Matkin is also the executive director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society. He explained once whales are able to pick fish off a boat’s line, that boat is marked. They can identify a vessel just by the sound of its propeller, and they’ll remember which ones are easy picking.

Fishermen could mitigate the issue by sending gear back to the bottom as soon as they see a whale, but Matkin acknowledges preventing an easy meal isn’t always possible.

“I don’t think research is going to necessarily find an easy way out of this. You wonder why it’s so easy for them to train whales at SeaWorld. Food is powerful stuff,” Matkin said.

Matkin thinks regulators are moving in the right direction. The council will take up the issue again at its next meeting in October.