In the Bering Sea, near the edge the continental shelf, fishermen are trying to escape a predator that seems to outwit them at every turn, stripping their fishing lines and lurking behind their vessels.
The predators are pods of killer whales chasing down the halibut and black cod caught by longline fishermen. Fishermen say the whales are becoming a common sight — and problem — in recent years, as they've gone from an occasional pest to apparently targeting the fishermen's lines.
Fishermen say they can harvest 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of halibut in a single day, only to harvest next to nothing the next when a pod of killer whales recognizes their boat. The hooks will be stripped clean, longtime Bering Sea longliner Jay Hebert said in a phone interview this week. Sometimes there will be just halibut "lips" still attached to hooks — if anything at all.
"It's kind of like a primordial struggle," fisherman Buck Laukitis said about the orcas last week. "It comes at a real cost."
The whales seem to be targeting specific boats, fisherman Jeff Kauffman said in a phone interview. FV Oracle Captain Robert Hanson said juvenile whales are starting to show up, and he thinks the mothers are teaching the young to go for the halibut and black cod the fishermen are trying to catch.
Hanson, a fisherman who's worked in the Bering Sea since 1992, said the orca problem has become "systemic" in recent years. There are more pods present, he said, and the animals are getting more aggressive.What does a hungry Killer Whale eat? Anything it wants.
In a letter he sent to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council last month, Hanson described a series of challenges he faced in recent years. On a trip to the continental shelf in April he said his crew was "harassed nonstop." He wrote that they lost approximately 12,000 pounds of sellable halibut to the whales and wasted 4,000 gallons of fuel trying to outrun them.
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Hebert said the whales seem to seek out the longliners. He's tried using sonars that emit a frequency designed to keep the whales away, but he said it's not strong enough to deter them. He would like to see pots, instead of hooks, introduced as a method for catching halibut, similar to how black cod were harvested in the Gulf of Alaska as a result of sperm whales targeting longliners.