Heist on the High Seas: Gangs of Killer Whales Target Fishing Boats

Photo: Two mammal-eating “transient” killer whales photographed off the south side of Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. © Robert Pittman/Wikimedia Commons.

In what is clearly evidence of high-functioning intelligence, large pods of orcas are reported to robbing Alaskan fishing boats of their haul, causing thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

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According to the National Post, the orcas organize themselves in groups up to 40 deep, then relentlessly stalking fishing boats, chasing them out of the Bering Sea. John McHenry, owner of the F/V Seymour, described their behavior as similar to a “motorcycle gang.”

McHenry told the Post, “You’d see two of them show up, and that’s the end of the trip. Pretty soon all 40 of them would be around you.”

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that the killer whales have targeted boats that harvest some 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of halibut and black cod, giving chase until they are able to steal the goods without harming the fishermen. The whales have been reported to follow the boats for days on end, with fishermen wasting thousands of gallons of fuel trying to outrun the kings of the ocean.

FV Oracle Captain Robert Hanson believe that the mothers are training their young to target the fishing boats, as the whales have learned that stealing from humans nets the highest quality results.

Hanson told the News that he once drove his boat up to an isolated area along the Russian border, and within a day 50 orcas showed up. “The pod tracked me 30 miles north of the edge and 35 miles west (while) I drifted for 18 hours up there with no machinery running and they just sat with me,” he revealed.

The whales are meticulous in their theft, careful not to harm the boats while they grab the loot. Bering Sea longliner Jay Hebert told the News that sometimes there will be just halibut “lips” still attached to hooks, but usually they are just stripped clean.

What’s more using sonar does not deter the whales from pursuing the boats. If anything, “It became a dinner bell,” Paul Clampitt, Washington State-based co-owner of the F/V Augustine, told the Post.

The only way to protect the haul is to convert to pot fishing, which uses giant crab traps to catch the fish, rather than to hook them. The cost of conversion is estimated at $600K. Clampitt expressed concern that the orcas might figure out how to rob the pots.

Ultimately, it comes down to a struggle between the world’s apex predators: orcas who rule the oceans and humans who can’t seem to leave nature alone.

 The dorsal fin of a male orca off the bow of the Spirit Of Endeavour in British Columbia. © Jeremy Keith/Wikimedia Commons.

The dorsal fin of a male orca off the bow of the Spirit Of Endeavour in British Columbia. © Jeremy Keith/Wikimedia Commons.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.