When will we learn to stop messing around with killer whales? Not anytime soon, if new reports from Alaska are any indication. Fishing boat captains from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea claim they’re losing their catches to pods of orcas that stalk the boats and wait until the nets are completely full before attacking with blazing speed and gorging on tons of halibut and black cod.. Before you begin offering suggestions like making scary noises or hiding, the captains say they’ve tried all of these and the orcas not only figured out their tricks but seem to pass the knowledge on to others.
"It's kind of like a primordial struggle. It comes at a real cost."
In an interview with Alaska Dispatch News, fisherman Buck Laukitis displays a Hemingway-ish attitude towards his battle with the whales, but the cost is real. While one study found that boats lose an average of $1,0000 worth of fish to whales per day, fisherman Robert Hanson claims he once used about 4,000 gallons of fuel trying to outrun a pod, then drifted silently for 18 hours in an attempt to hide before finally losing the battle … and 12,000 pounds of fish. Hebert has been fishing in Alaskan waters for 39 years and, like other seasoned veterans, says the whale attacks have driven him to the brink of quitting in the last five years.
"It's gotten completely out of control."
Recent research shows that the worst problem is in the Bering Sea where the population of orcas is dense … but their intelligence is not. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) fisheries biologist John Moran points out that they can differentiate between the sounds of different boats and know when the nets are being lowered or, more importantly, hauled in by the sounds of the hydraulic system. With that kind of hearing, it’s not surprising that the orcas can also tell why boats are blasting loud annoying horns while reeling in their nets. As fishing boat operator Paul Clampitt puts it:
"It became a dinner bell."
How smart are these orcas? One theory is that they learned how to track fishing boat and slice through their nets from sperm whales, which have been doing it to Japanese fishermen for decades despite being hunted to near extinction partly in retaliation.
In defense of the Alaskan fishermen, they are considering less fatal ways to win the battle with the orcas. One suggestion is to switch from hooks to pots or traps to discourage the whales from stealing – an expensive but workable alternative.
Humans and orcas are both apex predators. Which one is going to win this battle? If the orcas are indeed smart, they may want to compare notes with sharks.