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‘Gangs’ of Killer Whales Are Harassing Alaskan Fishermen

Like pirates of the Bering Sea, orcas are chasing fishermen out of the area.

by Gigen Mammoser
Jun 24 2017, 9:00pm

Killer whales are some of the ocean's fiercest predators, yet they famously don't attack humans (there's only been one known human attack by a wild orca). But that doesn't mean they can't be a giant pain in the ass.

Fishermen have long headed to the Bering Sea, the strip of ocean separating Alaska and Russia, for its bountiful supply of black cod and Halibut. But lately, a renewed and brazen orca population, like pirates of the Bering Sea, is aggressively pursuing fisherman for their daily catch, often running away with tens of thousands of pounds of pilfered fish.

A report in the Alaska Dispatch News this week has shone a light on the rise of killer whale "depredation"—that's fishing parlance for when a catch is plundered, in this case by orcas—and how it is affecting the lives of fishermen.

"We've been chased out of the Bering Sea," Paul Clampitt, a fishing boat owner, told the National Post.

Boat captains have similarly complained of nonstop harassment by pods of killer whales. In one gruesome account, a fisherman recalled seeing nothing but halibut "lips" attached to hooks when they hauled in their catch.

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Fish aren't the only resource lost to the whales either. Boat captains, increasingly wary of the aggressive pods, will attempt to move around or outrun them, wasting fuel—thousands of gallons—and time.

In a letter written to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, fishing boat captain Robert Hanson described the tenacity of the whales:

"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."

The problem is that, as biologist John Moran told the Alaska Dispatch, killer whales—both highly social and skilled hunters—have not only learned to track the fishing boats, but are actively teaching other pod members to target them as well.

Attempts to dissuade the whales have so far been unsuccessful. Employing the common tactic of using sonar to drive away whales without harming them has had no effect.

"It became a dinner bell," Clampitt told the National Post.

It's hard not to feel sympathy (and vicarious frustration) for the fishermen, considering that their livelihoods are at stake here. But also: holy shit, killer whales are smart! Tracking boats! Teaching each other to do the same! Using the fishermen's sonar against them!

Fishermen have approached the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council with two propositions: a study of killer whale depredation, and changing their primary fishing gear from hooks to "pots" (a method that would better protect the fish from plundering).

For now, there isn't a solution in sight.