The Bering Sea trawl fleet has seen a jump in the number of killer whales accidentally swept up in their nets. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, U.S. trawlers pulled in 10 orcas in their nets over the summer, including nine that were already dead and one that was recovered alive. This is more than usual, and is in addition to other typical bycatch species like seals and sea lions.
The flatfish fishery, which trawls the bottom for sole, flounder, and plaice, caught nine of the orcas. The center claimed that flatfish trawlers have a “growing problem” with marine mammal bycatch. The pollock fishery, on the other hand, does not intentionally drag the seafloor but sometimes touches bottom with its nets. A pollock trawler pulled in the 10th orca of the season. In addition, the center claims that the pollock fishery has an impact on marine mammal populations by reducing the availability of pollock as prey.
The Lawsuit Against NOAA
The Center for Biological Diversity plans to file a lawsuit against NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service over orca bycatch in the Bering Sea trawl fleet. The center argues that “this array of significant new information, including the recent killer whale deaths, indicates the trawl fisheries are causing environmental harm not previously considered. The National Environmental Policy Act requires that the Fisheries Service complete a supplemental environmental impact statement [EIS] under these circumstances.” The Center plans to pursue a court order to make the NMFS complete a supplemental EIS if it does not launch the process on its own within 60 days.
Bycatch aside, the Alaska pollock fishery is widely considered to be among the most sustainable and well-managed sources of protein in the world. It has a lower carbon footprint than beef, pork, chicken, or cod, according to the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. The industry association says that non-target species like marine mammals typically account for less than one percent of the catch. The industry has been working on gear modifications and other measures to reduce bycatch and protect protected species.
Impact of Commercial Fishing
The impact of the fishing industry on marine mammal populations is a significant concern for marine mammal scientists and conservationists. The National Marine Fisheries Service has been working with the industry to address the issue of bycatch and protect protected species. Federal observers are also placed on vessels to monitor and report any entanglement or mortalities of protected species. The Groundfish Forum, an industry group, has developed a program to reduce bycatch and promote sustainable fishing practices.