Whales anger Alaska fishermen. Tolerance dissipates as man and mammal compete for same valuable black cod catch
Anchorage, Alaska — The attitude of some Alaska fishermen has changed toward killer whales. The whales, whose appearances were tolerated by many fishermen, have been feeding on black cod, bringing them into conflict with those who fish for the cod in Prince William Sound, near Anchorage.
Some of the angry fishermen have taken up rifles to try to keep the killer whales off their cod catch, a tactic that so far hasn't worked and could, according to one federal wildlife official, cause closure of the sound's fledgling black cod fishery.
Fishermen in Alaska in recent years have turned to black cod, trying to diversify their catch and expand their economic opportunities.
Fishermen last year began reporting that one of the sound's eight groups -- called pods -- of killer whales was picking the fish off their hooks as the longlines were hauled back on board their vessels. The 35 whales took 25 percent of the potential catch, costing 30 black cod fishermen over $100,000, according to whale researcher Craig O. Napkin.
Killer whales -- which are called ``killer'' not because they are lethal to humans but for their capacity to eat other sea mammals and fish predators such as sea lions and seals -- also have plucked black cod from longlines near Australia, Japan, Norway, Iceland, and off the Aleutian Islands, according to Mr. Napkin.
``We had killer whales eat the whole catch three days in a row. Everywhere we went the whales went with us,'' said John Rosapepe, an American observer on a Japanese survey vessel fishing for black cod near the Aleutians.
``The crew threw seal bombs [underwater explosives] but they didn't slow down the whales,'' he said.
Marine biologists admit there's no easy solution to the problem. They've suggested fishermen might feed the whales black cod doused in lithium chloride, a chemical that causes intense vomiting. Sonic harrassment and underwater strobe lights have also been suggested.
Instead of using longlines, fishermen have to catch black cod in baited pots, a time-consuming and less profitable method, said Steven T. Zimmerman, chief of marine mammals and endangered species in Alaska for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Some fishermen habitually shoot at marine mammals that are drawn to their gear by the fish.
The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act permits fishermen to ``incidentally'' kill marine mammals that get caught in their nets and drown, Mr. Zimmerman says. After ``exhausting all other means,'' fishermen can shoot seals, sea otters, porpoises, and sea lions that threaten their gear and catch.
Fishermen have inquired about including killer whales on the list of marine mammals that can be shot in defense of their catch.
The inquiry is ironic: Alaska's commercial fishermen have been among the loudest critics of a request by Sea World Incorporated to capture 10 killer whales from Alaska for exhibit in its San Diego amusement park.
``Given the public outcry over Sea World's proposal I can't imagine that we would ever grant the right to shoot killer whales,'' Zimmerman said.
Because of killer whales' popularity, publicity about fishermen firing at them could jeopardize future black cod seasons, he added.
Napkin, who has photographed Prince William Sound killer whales as part of a whale population census, says as many as 13 of the 35 whales in the cod-loving pod show apparent bullet scars on their upper backs or fins. At the end of the '85 season, three of the pod's whales were missing, he said.
Wildlife officials have not aggressively enforced the rules applying to shooting of Alaska's marine mammals, says Mr. Rosapepe. Some fishermen, who view marine mammals as vermin that compete for valuable fish and shellfish stocks, admit not only to shooting animals that approach their vessel but also to hunting them.
``If I see a sea lion I plug it,'' said one Juneau, Alaska, gill-net fisherman. Several fishermen he knows travel to sea lion rookeries to blast the animals off the rocks, he said.
Despite years of intensive research, little is known about killer whales in the wild. Their power and mystique, combined with striking black and white body markings and the male's dramatic dorsal fin, contributes to their popularity.