At least nine orcas have died after getting trapped in commercial fishing equipment off the coast of Alaska in 2023 so far. This figure is already significantly higher than many previous years combined, raising speculation that the increase in fatalities could be the result of a “new behavior” within the species.
NOAA Fisheries released a statement explaining that they’ve received 10 separate reports on orcas becoming trapped in fishing boats around Aleutian Island and the Bering Sea this year. One of those individuals managed to escape alive, but the remaining nine died.
It is estimated that there are around 50,000 killer whales globally, around 2,500 of which dwell in the eastern North Pacific Ocean around this part of Alaska.
Incidents like this have happened in the past, but they are rare. A previous NOAA report found that just five orcas had died in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries of Alaska as a result of bycatch between 2016 and 2020.
These statistics have been affirmed by anecdotal reports among fishermen who say that encounters with orcas are becoming increasingly more common in Alaskan waters.
A number of vessels involved in the recent encounters have been associated with the Groundfish Forum, a Seattle-based fishery trade association. Some of their sailors have reported orcas approaching their ships more often and using it as an opportunity to hunt fish. This, they claim, seems to be part of a new behavior.
“Our ﬁshermen believe that the killer whales are attracted to ﬁshing gear because ﬁshing activities aggregate ﬁsh and allow killer whales to feed on the catch. 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,” Groundfish Forum said in a statement given to Anchorage Daily News.
“This new behavior has not been previously documented and marine mammal scientists are not sure why this change has occurred,” it added.
Others have suggested that the mounting number of orca fatalities could be the result of a new initiative to reduce halibut bycatch by sorting the nets on deck and returning halibut to the sea. However, Groundfish Forum denied this was a factor, saying: “These assertions are not true because our vessels do not conduct deck sorting when killer whales are present.”
This isn’t the only potential new behavior seen among orcas. On the other side of the world along the south coast of Spain, there have been numerous reports of orcas intentionally smashing into the bottoms of vessels and aggressively following them back to port. In May 2023 alone, at least 18 incidents like this were reported.
Once again, marine mammal experts have been stumped as to where this behavior emerged from, although some sailors suspect that commercial fishing might be a factor.
“I am not a scientist, but orcas have a migration pattern and there are huge tuna fishing nets at Barbate, I do wonder whether they associate vessels with fishing and taking their tuna,” sailor April Boyes wrote in a blog post.