Conservationists to sue NOAA Fisheries after killer whale deaths in Alaska

A photo of a killer whale.

The Center for Biological Diversity is planning to sue NOAA Fisheries following the revelation that nine killer whales have been killed during commercial fishing operations in the Bering Sea so far this year.

In October 2023, NOAA Fisheries announced that ten killer whales had been taken as bycatch by groundfish trawlers operating off the coast of Alaska. Only one of the whales survived the encounters.

The Center for Biological Diversity claims NOAA Fisheries has failed to adequately protect marine mammals from the trawl fishing industry as required by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The conservation group sent the agency a notice of its intent to sue in October.

“I’m deeply disturbed by how blatantly the trawl fisheries are harming marine mammals like orcas and destroying the health of the entire Bering Sea ecosystem,” Center for Biological Diversity Alaska Representative Cooper Freeman said. “The federal government’s job is to protect imperiled marine animals and their habitats, but it’s massively failing in the Bering Sea. Officials need to act now to stop the carnage and bring this out-of-control fishery into compliance with the law.”

The group’s notice claims that in light of the killer whale deaths, NOAA Fisheries must complete a new consultation on the impacts of trawling.

In its initial announcement, NOAA Fisheries said it was investigating the deaths.

“NOAA Fisheries 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,” NOAA Fisheries. “The agency is working quickly to evaluate these incidents and will share findings as soon as possible after all required analyses are completed. We expect to have some preliminary information within the next few weeks.”

The Groundfish Forum, a trade associate representing five trawling companies, confirmed some of the killer whale encounters had occurred on vessels belonging to its members, and acknowledged there has been an uptick in killer whale encounters this year.

“In 2023, our captains have reported an increase in the number of killer whales present near our vessels, where they appear to be feeding in front of the nets while fishing,” the trade association said. “This new behavior has not been previously documented and marine mammal scientists are not sure why this change has occurred.”

The forum said that it is changing its practices to avoid whales.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) has also expressed concern over the incidents, writing a letter to NOAA Administrator Janet Coit urging an investigation.

“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 said. “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. I wrote to Administrator Coit to urge that NOAA thoroughly investigate these entanglements to determine why and how they are happening and what can be done to protect whales and other marine species from bycatch. We must return our oceans to abundance to protect Alaskan jobs and our ways of life.” 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/Tarpan


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