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NGO Plans to Sue Over Spike in Orca Deaths in Bering Sea Trawl Fisheries

Southern resident killer whales (NOAA)
File image courtesy NOAA

Published Oct 24, 2023 10:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

An American environmental NGO plans to file a lawsuit against NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service over orca bycatch in the Bering Sea trawl fleet, citing a jump in the number of killer whales accidentally swept up in the 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.

Nine of the orcas were caught by the flatfish fishery, which trawls the bottom for sole, flounder and plaice. The center claimed that flatfish trawlers have a "growing problem" with marine mammal bycatch. 

The pollock fishery does not intentionally drag the seafloor, though it does sometimes touch bottom with its nets. A pollock trawler pulled in the 10th orca of the season. In addition, the center claims, the pollock fishery has an impact on marine mammal populations by reducing the availability of pollock as prey. 

"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," warned the center in a statement. 

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, and is increasingly popular as an eco-friendly alternative among American consumers. 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.