Unique Award-Winner Highlights Risks to Whales From Fight Over Fish

June 12, 2024
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The author Nick Rahaim, journalist, researcher and fisherman, worked as a deckhand on a fishing vessel in Alaska to report his feature on conflict between fishers and whales.

Inside Story: Unique Award-Winner Highlights Risks to Whales From Fight Over Fish

Bold choices defined journalist and fisherman Nick Rahaim’s coverage of the battle over fish between whales and fishers, from writing a long story on a niche topic in the first person to reporting on an industry in which he also works. But his account, which took second place for outstanding small-market feature story in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 22nd Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment, made those choices work, said judges, who added. ”Rahaim must be commended for the balance he strikes that allows readers to leave the story both informed as well as engaged.”

SEJournal Online recently caught up with Rahaim by email. Here is the conversation.

SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?

Nick Rahaim: I was a deckhand on a longline vessel for sablefish in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013. A pod of sperm whales followed our boat for a week and ate nearly all of the sablefish off of our hooks, a phenomenon known as depredation. With the catch going to the whales, we were losing money while working 20 hours a day in bad weather. As frustration grew, the guns came out and my captain and crewmates began firing at the sperm whales. I was appalled but had no recourse in the moment, being the new crew member. The experience motivated me to undertake numerous investigations on fisheries’ impacts on marine mammals, including this story.

SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece and how did you solve that challenge?


The biggest challenge was

openly describing illegal acts

I witnessed while working on

commercial fishing vessels.


Rahaim: The biggest challenge was openly describing illegal acts I witnessed while working on commercial fishing vessels. While not a common practice, shooting whales is a story the people in the industry do not want told. The fear of reprisal was real — both physically and professionally.

I also wanted to avoid the trap of sensationalism when writing about illegal acts. Whales being shot wasn’t the primary story, but it worked as a narrative hook to tell the larger story of intelligent creatures adapting to their environment and the impact that had on their own populations, commercial fisheries and the health of fish stocks.

SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting?

Rahaim: Just how smart whales are. Their intelligence is well documented, but as one biologist told me, they “can do the math.” Whales can hear boat engines from great distances and can recognize the distinct sounds of fishing vessels. One study, which used bioacoustic tags on seven sperm whales in the Gulf of Alaska, found that they do a cost-benefit analysis on the fly.

To quote my article: “If the sound of a boat motoring to fishing grounds is coming from within 55 kilometers—a six-hour swim—a sperm whale seems to deem that it’s worth burning the calories to travel there and depredate. If the distance is any greater, the whales stay put. But if fishers have already begun hauling up their catch—a process that takes around three hours—the whales only swim up to two hours for the chance of depredating.”

Whales have also demonstrated a keen ability to sniff out tricks. Acoustic decoys have been tested to lure whales away from fishing boats, but they quickly learn how to identify the bait. “Sperm whales are just so smart and clever, I believe they know what we’re going to do before we do,” the same biologist told me.

SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?

Rahaim: The story takes a deep dive into a rather niche area of scientific inquiry, so I needed a character to create a compelling narrative that would keep the reader’s attention. That character happened to be me.


Even fishers who don’t

agree with harming whales

don’t want to talk about it.


I would have liked to bring more voices from the fishing industry into the story or tell the story using others who have witnessed violent acts against whales on the water, but I couldn’t find anyone to go on record. Even fishers who don’t agree with harming whales don’t want to talk about it, fearing more reputational harm to an industry they believe is already under threat.

In the end, I felt the first-person narrative allowed me to pull from my personal experience at sea, providing context and color for the science.

SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have disproportional impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?

Rahaim: The answer to this question depends largely on which fishery we’re talking about — international tuna fisheries in the South Pacific are very different from longline fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska. Suffice it to say the lower the income of the fisher, the more impacted they are by economic losses caused by whales, regardless of where they live.

There are plenty of examples of worker exploitation in fisheries both within the United States and globally that often target folks of specific ethnicities and racial backgrounds. Hopefully, I’ll have the opportunity to report those in the future.

SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story?


No story is a dead story.

In the end my patience —

and/or stubbornness — paid off.


Rahaim: No story is a dead story. I had pitched this feature a few times over the years, but could never find the right fit. Some editors liked the idea of a first-person account of fishermen shooting whales, definite clickbait, but didn’t want it framed within a nuanced science story. Other times, I couldn’t get the word count I wanted to fully tell this story. In the end my patience — and/or stubbornness — paid off.

SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?

Rahaim: Take time to really get to know the subject matter. Read the scientific literature and familiarize yourself with a biologist’s work before reaching out for an interview. The best quotes and context came from within a conversation about whale behavior and fisheries, as opposed to simply reading from a list of questions and waiting for responses. Furthermore, some of the most powerful data points I found weren’t outlined in the abstract of a scientific paper, but came from within the body.

SEJournal: Could you characterize the resources that went into producing your prize-winning reporting (estimated costs, i.e., legal, travel or other; or estimated hours spent by the team to produce)? Did you receive any grants or fellowships to support it?

Rahaim: I had started reporting the story more than 10 years ago, but shelved it for years until I found the time and resources to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it. As any journalist, I have a pile of investigative stories waiting for the opportunity to be written.

I entered graduate school in environmental policy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, in 2019. There the Center for the Blue Economy offered me financial support for researching the story. I don’t really want to think of the number of hours it took to produce the article. Even with support from the Center for the Blue Economy and more than fair pay from Hakai Magazine, it was largely a labor of love.

Nick Rahaim is a multimedia journalist, blue economy researcher and commercial fisherman. He received a Fulbright fellowship in 2022 to work with artisanal fishing cooperatives in Jiquilisco Bay, El Salvador, and is continuing work on sustainable fisheries and mangrove reforestation in the region as the program design and development director for ECOPA: A Jiquilisco Bay Alliance. Previously, Rahaim was a reporter at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for coverage of the devastating North Bay wildfires in 2017. As a commercial fisherman, he has worked in more than a dozen fisheries in the North Pacific, logging nearly 1,500 days at sea. He holds an MA in international environmental policy from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a BA in economics and English from the University of Vermont. Check out his blog at www.outside-in.org and follow him on social media network X and Instagram @nrahaim.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 24. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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