Conservation group blames Bering Sea trawlers for orca deaths, plans to sue feds

Orcas spotted in the Bering Sea in August 2023. (Courtesy Dustin Unignax̂ Newman)

A conservation group is preparing to sue the federal government for allegedly failing to protect killer whales from trawlers in the Bering Sea.

The trawl fleet in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands has come under fire in recent weeks. The backlash follows a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that said 10 orcas were hauled up in trawl nets over the last year, nine of which died.

The Center for Biological Diversity said in a Monday statement that NOAA Fisheries must uphold its duty to protect the killer whales, which are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The national conservation group said the trawlers are catching lots of non-targeted species, or bycatch, in defiance of conservation laws.

It’s not a new issue for orcas to get caught up in fishing gear, but the recent numbers are a jump up from previous years. The trawl fishery association Groundfish Forum said their boats have reported a recent uptick in orca encounters. Climate change may play a role in the increased sightings, as many ocean species adapt to new conditions.

The conservation group announced they would file a lawsuit if NOAA Fisheries did not adequately address the allegations within 60 days.

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