NOAA Report on Killer Whale Bycatch Prompts Call for Immediate Action

A pod of killer whales in Alaska waters. Image via NOAA Fisheries.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, is calling on NOAA Fisheries to end the status quo on action to prevent killer whales from being caught up in groundfish trawl gear in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

On Oct. 26, Peltola released a statement saying she has asked NOAA Fisheries to release conclusions of an analysis of the 10 killer whales caught in trawl nets this year. Peltola urged NOAA to consider increased whale-gear interactions in any National Standard revisions particularly learned whale behavior related to bycatch discards.

Killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires vessel owners and operators to report to NOAA Fisheries all incidental mortalities and injuries of marine mammals that occur during commercial fishing and survey operations.

“Whales being snared in trawl nets aren’t just tragic accidents – it’s clear evidence that our current approach to reduce bycatch is not working,” Peltola told NOAA Administrator Janet Coit in a letter regarding the snared whales.

“Our ocean environments are fragile, and the entire ecosystem is being impacted by trawling, from our devastated crab populations on the ocean floor up to the largest mammals,” the letter continued.

The Alaska congresswoman said she is working collaboratively with all stakeholders, fisheries managers, and user groups to develop innovative bycatch solutions at every level, from Congress on down to individual vessels and gear improvements.

A comprehensive approach to reducing bycatch would enable responsible fishing practices while protecting marine mammal populations, and safeguard Alaska’s ocean resources for future generations, she said.

NOAA Fisheries announced in September that the agency was analyzing data collected from 10 killer whales caught incidentally in 2023 by Bering Sea and Aleutian Island groundfish trawl harvesters.  NOAA said such analysis typically takes many months to complete.  Vessels that netted the killer whales were all required to carry two NOAA Fisheries observers.

The incidents involved catcher processors vessels; including nine incidental catches by non-pelagic gear and one incidental catch by pelagic trawl gear, all between May 6 and Sept 9, and ranged in geographic location by more than 600 nautical miles.

Only in one incident was the whale released alive. Regarding the others, NOAA Fisheries said it is analyzing collected data to determine the cause of injury or death and determine which stocks these whales belong to through a review of genetic information.

Some preliminary information was anticipated to be released before the final conclusions of the analysis was completed, the agency said.