After 9 Orcas Were Found Dead This Summer, A Lawsuit Has Been Launched To Stop U.S. Fisheries’ Trawl Nets From Killing More Orcas

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice yesterday of its intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect marine mammals from being killed by the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands groundfish trawl fisheries.

Nine killer whales were found dead in trawl nets this summer, with an additional orca caught and released, its fate unknown. Trawl fisheries regularly kill and injure other marine species, including humpback whales, fin whales, bearded seals, ringed seals, Steller’s sea lions, northern fur seals, and Pacific walruses.

“I’m deeply disturbed by how blatantly the trawl fisheries are harming marine mammals like orcas and destroying the health of the entire Bering Sea ecosystem,” said Cooper Freeman, Alaska representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The federal government’s job is to protect imperiled marine animals and their habitats, but it’s massively failing in the Bering Sea. Officials need to act now to stop the carnage and bring this out-of-control fishery into compliance with the law.”

All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and several populations of the species harmed by the fishery are also protected under the Endangered Species Act. Yesterday’s notice asserts that the Fisheries Service is violating both laws by failing to safeguard these imperiled animals from injury and death.

The Bering Sea groundfish trawl fishery is the largest fishery in the United States, and the largest food fishery in the world. Walleye pollock makes up the majority of the catch, along with a variety of other flatfish. Using massive trawl nets that are often dragged along the bottom of the ocean floor, industrial fishing vessels catch more than a billion dollars’ worth of fish annually.

Within the overall groundfish fishery, the two main fisheries for pollock and flatfish are both causing large-scale damage to the Bering Sea ecosystem. The flatfish fishery, which trawls directly on the ocean floor, has a growing problem with catching and killing marine mammals in its nets. That includes nine of the 10 orcas caught this summer.

The pollock fishery, in addition to serious bycatch issues, is also contributing to the decline of imperiled populations of marine mammals by depleting the pollock stocks these animals rely on as a key prey source.

While the pollock fishery is required to fish off the bottom in the mid-water or pelagic zone, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which manages the fishery, recently admitted that pollock trawl nets were making bottom contact up to 70% or more of the time.

“Imagine trawl nets big enough to hold a 747 jet bouncing off the ocean floor, destroying the fragile ocean bottom and catching every living thing in their path,” said Freeman. “If the public truly knew what was happening in this fishery, people would be aghast. They’d be even more shocked that the agency tasked with minimizing harm is standing idly by while the industry is driving decision-making.”

This new array of significant information, including the recent orca deaths, indicates that 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 under these circumstances.

Yesterday’s notice states that the Fisheries Service must re-evaluate the harms of the fishery and immediately adopt mitigation measures to reduce the risk of more deadly bycatch of whales, seals, sea lions, and other species.

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