LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Alaska's halibut and black cod fishermen are in a food fight with killer whales. But some fishermen are now using a new piece of gear that prevents the whales from stealing their catch. From member station KBBI in Homer, Alaska, Aaron Bolton reports.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, right there's one, right underneath you - a killer whale.
BILL HARRINGTON: Oh, you dirty [expletive].
AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Bill Harrington is not happy. A pod of killer whales is swarming his boat as he returns to pull in his line. The sound is a dinner bell for both the pod and a large sperm whale that surfaces about 20 feet from his boat.
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HARRINGTON: Whoa, mother [expletive].
BOLTON: This video was shot 10 years ago when Harrington was a longline fisherman. Harrington and his crew would travel a hundred miles or more and bait thousands of hooks attached to a commercial fishing line by hand before anchoring it to the ocean floor between two buoys. A sperm whale or just a couple of killer whales can pick a line clean as it's pulled in.
HARRINGTON: As far as I'm concerned, they're only thieves in tuxedoes.
BOLTON: Harrington retired a few years back, and he says the problem only got worse. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that whales eat about $3.1 million worth of Alaska black cod per season. Other regulators are still estimating those numbers for halibut, but fishermen say they're losing thousands of dollars per trip. Roy Wilson delivered his last halibut load of the season in early November. And he says he ended the trip early because of killer whales.
ROY WILSON: We just left a lot of fish on the grounds, probably $50,000 worth of fish on the grounds and - that we won't ever see again. But at least the fish are alive.
BOLTON: Despite smaller paychecks for both him and his crew, Wilson is happy killer whales didn't steal more of his catch. A potential solution to this problem is coming from new regulations. In the coming years, longline fishermen in Western Alaska will be allowed to catch halibut in longline pots, something black cod fishermen in the region have done for years. And those in the Gulf of Alaska began in 2017. Instead of fish being exposed on hooks along the ocean floor, fish swim into enclosed containers, seeking the bait inside. The pots protect the catch from hungry whales.
R WILSON: If everybody could go to pots, it would be a great thing for the fishery.
BOLTON: There are reasons some fishermen are reluctant to make the switch. Pots take up more space on the fishing grounds, and they can get tangled with traditional longline gear. That's why North Pacific regulators prohibited pots in the '80s and '90s. But now that regulators have reapproved the gear, there is another barrier.
ERIK VELSKO: The gear is just so expensive.
BOLTON: Homer longliner Erik Velsko is thinking about spending $200,000 just to get started. Velsko also views the switch as a conservation measure, as he fears black cod managers are underestimating just how many fish whales are eating.
VELSKO: I think if we just keep doing what we're doing, it's just going to get worse and worse and harder and harder every year.
BOLTON: He may stop black cod fishing all together if he can't afford the switch to pots. Back on the deck of Wilson's boat, his 28-year-old daughter Marissa Wilson is cleaning fish. She worked for her dad full-time up until last year, when she took a desk job in conservation.
MARISSA WILSON: This is the first year that I haven't gone out fishing and it's been - I've had to do a lot of soul searching.
BOLTON: She's been thinking about buying her own boat. But deciding what to fish for is a big financial decision.
M WILSON: It's - I don't think I'll ever stop feeling like a fisherman. I'm taking a little hiatus, but I've always got my eyes on the ocean.
BOLTON: She's thinking about fishing for black cod. And if she invests in pots, she won't have to worry about those thieves in tuxedoes. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Homer, Alaska.
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