All of the stakeholders at the table understood the crucial nature of their work. The collapse of salmon runs and orca pods in the Salish Sea and beyond would be an unconscionable desecration. But there were so many pieces to this complex puzzle. How could we give up our carefully engineered waterways, which still provide economic benefit, even as they are profoundly compromising the ecosystem? How might we step back from our totalitarian claim on an environment that is also essential for an elegant, complex, large-brained species whose ways and capacities we have only begun to recognize, much less fathom?
Late last fall, in its report back to the Governor, the task force called for “swift and bold near-term actions and effective long-term actions” that would result in boosting the SRKW population by ten additional whales in the next ten years. The task force listed several goals that would help the SRKW population to thrive.
Heeding much of the task force’s advice, in the very next legislative session the Legislature passed, and Governor Inslee signed, five bills designed to spur orca recovery. These laws strengthen requirements for the safe passage of oil tankers; implement recommendations for improving habitat and increasing fish stocks; authorize the Washington State Department of Ecology to restrict the use of chemicals that impact orcas and the environment; educate boaters about whale-watching; and decrease vessel noise and traffic.
Still, Sandstrom is not satisfied. In the photos showing the Governor with supporters of the orca recovery bills right after he’d signed those bills into law, she is the one who isn’t smiling. That may be because one of the task force’s recommendations that she considered essential was not included in the recovery package.
A proposed moratorium of 3-5 years on all whale-watching vessels around the Southern Residents – and that would have affected not just the commercial whale-watching fleet, but also recreational boats and even non-motorized vessels – was met with considerable resistance by the multi-million dollar whale watching industry. One high-profile foe of the moratorium sniped in a newspaper editorial about “emotional and irrational anti-whale watching agendas.”
The steadfast work of Sandstrom’s nonprofit organization over the past decade speaks for itself. She certainly isn’t against watching whales; she counters that she is just being realistic. “The goal is to make it easier for whales to echolocate on their food and not interfere with their social calls…. What can we do to stack the deck for their success?”
She points out that the moratorium would apply only to the endangered Southern Residents, not the Northern Residents, and it would be for a limited period, to see if it actually could make a difference.
Sandstrom will be pushing to have the moratorium reconsidered in the next legislative session.
“I want to go all in for the Southern Residents,” she says, looking past the Whale Trail sign, and out at the Salish Sea.
But on this day, at least, there are no whales to be seen.
Readers who are interested in supporting a suspension of whale-watching on the Southern Residents by all vessels can contact:
Washington Governor Jay Inslee;
U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell;
and NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region administrators Barry Thom (Regional Administrator) and Scott Rumsey (Deputy Regional Administrator).
Residents in Washington State might also contact their state legislators.
A spyhopping Southern Resident in the urban fjord called Puget Sound – photo credit Mark Sears, permit 21348