West Coast whales hooked on free lunch eating into fishery profits

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Commercial fisherman Dave Boyes has pulled up his lines to find nothing but the shredded remains of a fish head often enough to know that whales are big fans of a free lunch.
Boyes, 56, says he's seen a sperm whale the size of his 18-metre longliner basically floss its teeth with a fishing line, then pop the halibut into its mouth.
"It's actually kind of funny to watch this 60-tonne animal just delicately taking this four-pound fish off your line and swallow it down," he says.
He's also had sperm whales strip his catch of kite-shaped skate fish of all but the sharp teeth still hanging on the line.
"It's the strangest looking set of false teeth you ever saw," he chuckles. "That's all that's left of the skate, is this silly grin. The whale has taken the rest."
A fisherman for 34 years, Boyes says he's noticed an increase in the number of incidents over the last few years.
But the situation in B.C. still pales in comparison to the huge losses Alaskan fishermen suffer from both sperm and killer whales every year. Depredation, as it's called, is so extensive in Alaska that experts estimate whales steal up to 25 per cent of the catch in some fisheries.
And Craig Matkin, marine mammal researcher with the Alaska Sealife Centre, says it seems to be getting worse.
Matkin has been documenting the issue for decades around Alaska's Aleutian Islands and Prince William Sound.
What started as one or two groups of killer whales chomping on sable fish has grown substantially larger and expanded to other fisheries, he says.
"They preferred the oily stuff, it was more like a treat. But as they got more hooked on this idea of a free lunch they went on to do halibut and turbot," he says. "It's a mess."
Matkin says fishermen have resorted to dropping their lines, leaving them to sink to the ocean floor when whales come around. They'll go back hours later, hoping to find their catch still anchored to the bottom.
They may lose the catch, but they avoid becoming a vessel the whale will associate with an easy meal.
"There's no doubt in my mind it's a very serious problem and the loss of either time, gear or fish is very substantial," Matkin says.
He says whales can hear the noise of a propeller going in and out of gear from miles away, alerting them that the crew is about to pull in their catch. And they also seem to recognize the noise of those boats where they've received a free meal before, he says.
Marine biologist John Ford says B.C. fishermen must make sure local whales don't grow accustomed to stealing their day's catch.
"It's like a garbage bear situation, where once they get the bad habit and they get an easy meal, that becomes their strategy," says Ford, who heads the Cetacean Research Program at the Pacific biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C.
Many "garbage bears" end up being shot when they can't be successfully relocated, but killing whales is against the law.
Still, they do risk entanglement when they venture into the fishing lines, Ford says, and it was determined one young killer whale found dead in Alaska died of a perforated esophagus from a longline hook.
Boyes says he tries to avoid feeding the whales, but they're so smart and attuned to the noise of the boat, it's very difficult.
He's spotted sperm whales in the distance as his crew was about to pull up a catch and suddenly the whale is following the boat like a "big puppy dog."
"He knows instantly that it's lunch time. It's just like I've rung the dinner bell," Boyes says.
A popular YouTube video shows a group of salmon sport fishermen watch as a pod of killer whales swim in for a snack. One of the men ends up reeling in just a fish head after struggling with what he believed was a "50-pounder."
In B.C., depredation is seen mostly near Haida Gwaii, at the northern end of Vancouver Island and along the continental shelf, Ford says.
Federal Fisheries officials have issued a notice warning of an increase in incidents, and asking fishermen not to dump fish heads and entrails into the water.
Boyes says he's experimenting with the use of pots and fish traps to keep whales from the lines and there is talk of a reporting system so vessels can avoid the whales.
"I'm not sure what the solution is," he says. "These animals teach feeding and hunting behaviour down the generations."


Organizations: Alaska Sealife Centre, Pacific biological Station

Geographic location: West Coast, B.C., Alaska Aleutian Islands Prince William Sound Nanaimo Vancouver Island

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