Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Whales steal free meals from fishing boats

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VANCOUVER -- 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."

A fisherman for 34 years, Boyes says he's noticed an increase in the number of incidents.

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.

Craig Matkin, marine mammal researcher with the Alaska Sealife Centre, says it seems to be getting worse. 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.

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.

Boyes says he tries to avoid feeding the whales, but they're smart and attuned to the noise of the boat.

Canadian 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.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2010 A11

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