NOAA Fisheries Analyzes Data on Incidental Catch of Killer Whales

Image: NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries says the agency is analyzing data regarding 10 killer whales caught incidentally in nets of Bering Sea and Aleutian Island groundfish trawl fisheries required to carry two NOAA Fisheries observers.

In only one incident was the whale was released alive.

Regarding others, NOAA Fisheries officials said they are analyzing data to determine the cause of injury or death and determine which stocks these whales belong to through a review of genetic information.

The agency said its findings would be made public once all analyses are completed.

NOAA Fisheries is also reviewing information regarding a killer whale incidentally caught during the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s longline survey for sablefish and groundfish this past summer.

On June 7, a dead orca was observed entangled in gear on the Central Bering Sea slope. The incident was reported and was under review in accordance with required reporting procedures. The Center has an incidental take authorization under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has identified bycatch as a global conservation and fisheries management issue and the single most direct threat to cetaceans. Globally, it is estimated that at least 300,000 cetaceans are caught and killed as bycatch annually, the IWC said.

Cetaceans can become entangled or wrapped in various types of fishing gear including nets, ropes and lines. Smaller species often die immediately as they are unable to reach the surface to breathe.  The large size of some cetacean species means entanglement may not kill them immediately but instead can become a serious welfare issue as they tow heavy ropes, buoys and nets for weeks, months or years before dying.

“Killer whales are highly complex and intelligent animals that play a critical role in ecosystem health and diversity,” Megan Williams, a fisheries scientist with the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit science-based conservation, said. “Recent whale mortalities in Alaska’s industrial trawl fisheries are tragic events that spotlight the urgent need for better bycatch and ecosystem management in the North Pacific.”

Killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires vessel owners and operators to report to NOAA Fisheries any incidental mortalities and injuries of marine mammals occurring in the course of commercial fisheries and survey operations.

Monitoring and evaluation of bycatch of protected species in commercial fishing gear is done by NOAA Fisheries through an analysis required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to determine whether the animals caught in the nets were dead before being caught or were killed or seriously injured by fishing gear.