Orcas in Alaska are stealing fish right from the lines — and the new behavior seems to be killing them

  • A federal agency said more orcas are getting caught in fishing gear in Alaska and dying.

  • Thieving orca in the area have been picking fish off trawlers' lines for decades.

  • But they have started lingering by boats more, a "new behavior" that may put them at more risk.

Orcas in Alaska are exhibiting a "new behavior" that may be getting them in trouble, a local fisher's association has said.

They've been known to pluck fish off from commercial fishing gear for decades. But recently, they've been spotted lingering by the boats more often, appearing to "be feeding in front of the nets while fishing," the group said.

The Groundfish Forum, a Seattle-based trawl group that represents members operating 19 boats in the area, gave the warning in a statement shared by the Anchorage Daily News.

"This new behavior" has never been documented and has marine scientists stumped, the Groundfish Forum said in the statement, dated September 21.

The news came as more orcas have been getting tangled up in trawling gear in the area, leading to nine deaths in Alaska in 2023 so far, the US federal fisheries agency said on September 21.

That's a marked spike, up from seven orca deaths or serious injuries in the six years leading up to 2020, per the Groundfish Forum statement.

Orcas are copycats, learning from each other

Killer whales are known to be able to pick up behaviors from their peers.

Like any other dolphin (yes, they are a type of dolphin), they are intensely social. That means new behaviors can spread like wildfire through a population.

This can be because it gives them a hunting advantage — two orcas off the coast of South Africa, for instance, learned together how to selectively suck out the livers of great white sharks.

But it could also be a fad spreading simply because the killer whales find the behavior entertaining. That's likely why, for a spat in the 80s, orcas were seen wearing dead fish on their heads like hats, for no obvious benefit.

Another recent example made headlines when a pod of orcas on the other side of the world seemed to be purposefully targeting and sinking sailboats.

People in a boat watching an orca whale swim toward them.
An orca swims near a tourist boat.Portland Press Herald / Contributor / Getty Images

Scientists still aren't sure what motivated the behavior, but they think it may have been a form of play that spread through the killer whales, to the detriment of sailors venturing near the Iberian coast.

Observers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are now investigating what exactly has caused the recent spike in killer whales' deaths near Alaska.

Thankfully, resident fish-eating killer whales in Alaska are not endangered. NOAA estimates there are in excess of 1,920 living near Alaska.

But all killer whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means any death or injury needs to be reported, per NOAA.

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