Fishermen watch helplessly as killer whales eat longline catches

welchlanieLR.jpg KODIAK -- Killer whales are stealing so many fish, at least one long-line fishery appears to be on its last legs.

May 1 marked the start of the once-lucrative turbot fishery. Turbot is similar to halibut, and this year’s harvest should produce roughly 16 million pounds from Bering Sea and Aleutian Island waters.

But in recent years, killer whales have been taking so many turbot from long-line hooks, the fishery is no longer profitable and boats have dropped out, down from 24 two years ago to just three boats today. "I was shocked," said fishery consultant Janet Smoker, a former federal fishery manager who now tracks catches for long-line vessels.

Smoker said she’s reviewed data to see if there’s a pattern to killer whale strikes, so she could advise the boats about places to fish and places to avoid. "I was flummoxed. The whales seemed to be everywhere. On one day some boats had almost 70 percent of their catch taken. So they’ve really caught on to this," Smoker said. The whales also wreak havoc with sablefish catches.

Long-time fisherman Bill Harrington has lost many of his catches to killer whales. He shared some of his anger, awe and observations about being out on the water with the whales.

"The night shift is the big ones with the huge, tall fins, the males. The day shift is the females with all their kids, teaching them how to do it from early on," Harrington said. "It’s hard to tell how many there are because they seem to be everywhere.

"All you can do, if you see them in time, is drop your gear and steam away 20 miles, then come back and have a couple of guys on top of the wheelhouse looking for fins. Then you start hauling back your gear and seven out of 10 times, the whales are there. Sometimes after you’ve hauled a set, they come up to the roller and three of them, side by side, stick their heads up, and they have that stupid little grin. They look at you just like a dog (and seem to be saying), ’Got any more?’

"They’ve learned that you can’t see them on the port stern quarter with a shelter deck, so they come up on that side and go under the boat and eat your fish. Now, instead of being opportunists, they’re actual thieves. They sneak up on you and rob you. When you’re out there and you’ve spent all this money and time baiting up and setting out, and it’s all taken away from you, it’s really frustrating.

"I think they’re tuned into the hydraulics. It’s like a dinner bell.

"I hate them. Still, it’s fascinating to see them. They take your breath away. But I’d rather not see any more. It’s hopeless. They’re way smarter than we are."

Monitoring the monitors

Vessel monitoring systems are coming under scrutiny by fishery managers. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is forming a committee to help evaluate VMS, an electronics system that is tracked by satellite and gives the location and speed of a vessel.

Starting June 10, boats using pots, long-line and trawl gear are required by federal law to have the tracking system aboard. The VMS is intended to protect Steller sea lions by making sure that boats are fishing at defined distances from rookeries or haul-out areas.

The VMS committee might come up with other options besides the one system that has been certified by the federal government. "We’ve been made aware of other systems that offer the same kind of monitoring, but also have two way communication and other features besides simply tracking the location of a vessel. We want to evaluate those alternatives," said council director Chris Oliver.

The VMS committee will meet over the summer and report to the fishery council in October.

Catfish fight

In the face of competing imports, the state of Louisiana and industry promoters are launching a National Catfish Awareness campaign. According to WorldCatch News Network, surveys revealed that 18 percent of Louisiana’s restaurants are selling too much foreign catfish, primarily from Vietnam.

The campaign is beginning with free handouts of a large, red, white and blue decals for restaurants that states, "We proudly serve 100 percent all-American catfish." The state Department of Agriculture and Forestry will send a simple contract to restaurant owners who wish to participate in the campaign that states only American catfish will be served. The contract also gives the department permission to verify if the restaurant is serving American catfish.

On a related note, the Fish Information Service reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will give the national catfish farming industry a boost by purchasing up to $6 million of breaded catfish products for school lunches and other federal nutrition programs. "Catfish producers have faced difficult economic times in recent years and this purchase will provide some assistance for producers," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.

In a USDA statement, Undersecretary Bill Hawks said that school children will be the primary beneficiaries of the catfish meals, but adds, "The Mississippi catfish industry, its thousands of workers and their families will also benefit from a more stabilized market from the federal purchase."

Mississippi fish farmers have been hurt by millions of pounds of catfish coming into the U.S. in recent years.

Kodiak-based free-lance writer Laine Welch can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).

05/26/2002 - 8:00pm