An American environmental NGO is gearing up to file a lawsuit against NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, citing a significant surge in the number of orcas incidentally ensnared in the nets of the Bering Sea trawl fleet. The Center for Biological Diversity, after careful analysis, revealed that 10 orcas were captured this summer, resulting in nine fatalities and one rescued alive. This spike in bycatch represents a critical concern, especially when coupled with the ongoing bycatch of other species such as seals and sea lions.
Highlighting the specific concerns within the fishing sectors, the center underscored that the flatfish trawlers encountered a “growing problem” with marine mammal bycatch, accounting for nine of the orcas captured. Even the pollock fishery, although not intentionally dragging the seafloor, had an incidental encounter with the tenth orca. Furthermore, the center emphasized the broader impact of the pollock fishery on marine mammal populations, affecting the availability of pollock as a crucial prey.
The center’s statement emphasized the need for a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act, urging the Fisheries Service to take prompt action.
In response to the claims, the Groundfish Forum, representing 19 trawlers, offered insights into potential shifts in the orcas’ behavior, pointing to their increased presence and engagement near the fishing vessels. Biologist Hannah Myers corroborated this observation, noting how the orcas appeared to exhibit novel feeding behavior near the nets, which, previously undocumented, poses a significant risk to the animals. Efforts are underway within the fishing industry to develop equipment modifications to prevent cetaceans from entering the nets.
Despite the mounting concerns, the Alaska pollock fishery, touted for its sustainable practices and minimal impact on non-target species, remains a vital source of eco-friendly protein worldwide. As both sides brace for legal action, the fate of the Bering Sea’s orcas hangs in the balance, prompting a crucial reevaluation of fishing practices and their impact on marine ecosystems.