PR for People Monthly October 2019 - Page 6

Under swift direction of then-Governor Dan Evans, State Attorney General Slade Gorton went to court and was able to shut down orca capture activities throughout the state –permanently.

But so much damage already had been done. The J, K, and L pods had been deprived of a generation’s worth of breeding orcas, and by 2005 the SRKW were placed on the federal endangered species list.

Today they may be free of the threat of capture, but now they’re facing a new and even more wide-ranging set of challenges.

First, the orcas’ primary food source, salmon, has significantly diminished over the last several decades due to a combination of factors that include global warming, dams and overfishing.

The fish that orcas do find to eat have increased levels of toxins in their flesh from the soup of chemicals that humans drain, leak and flush daily into the Salish Sea. These toxins make their way up the food chain. The resulting bioaccumulation in whale blubber impacts the orcas’ resistance to disease.

Noise pollution has become another critical problem. Whales use echolocation to hunt for their food. In quiet seas, an orca can detect a Chinook salmon as far away as 650 yards – the equivalent of almost six football fields. But the Salish Sea accommodates busy commercial shipping lanes, along with the added commotion of ferries (Washington State operates the nation’s largest ferry system) and pleasure craft. On top of that, the burgeoning whale-watching industry sometimes results in a dozen or more boats puttering around a pod of orcas as they try to hunt for their food. It’s thrilling for the humans, but it inevitably compromises the orcas’ capacity for locating prey.

Overarching all of these are the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, which are causing numerous alterations to an ecosystem and food chain that the Southern Residents traditionally have relied upon.

These are the challenges that Governor Inslee’s task force was charged with tackling. And if their efforts fail, scientists fear that SRKW’s downward spiral in population will continue, and the J, K and L pods may face extinction within the next hundred years.

The making of a whale advocate

Sandstrom’s activism on behalf of whales began shortly after she first arrived in Seattle in the 1980s. Back then she engaged in letter-writing campaigns to keep SeaWorld from collecting more orcas to augment its captive breeding program.

By the early 1990s, she was taking her first steps into public education about the whales. She founded the Orca Alliance in 1993 to facilitate collaborations between whale advocacy groups, and she arranged public education events about whales – bringing in speakers and focusing on the plight of whales held in marine parks.

One program focused on Lolita/Tokitae, one of the young whales captured in the Penn Cove raid, and the only one still alive today. Lolita has spent the last 49 years in captivity. The three-and-a-half ton whale lives at Miami’s Seaquarium, in a tank that is shallower than the length of her body. Repeated efforts to bring her back to the Salish Sea have been rebuffed by Seaquarium owners.

Clearly, not all advocacy efforts bear fruit, and it can be discouraging. But sometimes there are gleams of hope. Back on a wintry January day in 2002, a quartermaster on the ferry run to Vashon Island (just across Puget Sound from Seattle) called in a report: there was a small orca hanging around the ferry dock – by itself. This was highly

Mt. Rainier looms over the J pod’s traditional territory in Puget Sound – photo credit Mark Sears, permit 21348