by Mike Conner
Born into a sea of noise, Tahlequah’s calf was followed constantly during birth and its brief life. The cries its mother and family raised, drowned in a cacophony of pistons thumping, propellers spinning, a dissonant roar echoing off the sea canyon’s walls. Another death in a small and desperately endangered population.
The press who flocked to the islands were welcomed by whale watchers and researchers who receive funding from whale watchers, so it was no surprise that the noise and disturbance caused by this multi-million dollar industry were largely left out of the story.
Although vessel noise and disturbance is the second leading cause of their decline, the whale watching industry consistently points a finger at scarce salmon and freighter traffic. Yet, the noise and exhaust of the engines in closest proximity, which follow and surround the whales all day every day are given a free pass.
Those of us who have witnessed these endangered whales surrounded by paparazzi inherently know otherwise. My personal reaction has been visceral disgust. The science backs up what common sense sees. Diminished salmon combined with unprecedented levels of noise combine to make fishing by echolocation exceedingly difficult.
After Olympia backed down from “bold action,” a group of islanders crafted the Orca Protection Initiative to give the starving whales a 650-yard buffer from vessels. We easily collected thousands of signatures from county residents eager to put the initiative on the 2019 ballot.
Our group and our county were sued by four of the largest whale watch companies. Their lawyer likened whale watcher’s rights to those of a butcher selling meat, a farmer selling strawberries, a miner panning for gold. County prosecutor, Randy Gaylord (though a defendant) argued in favor of the plaintiffs to remove the initiative from the ballot. Judge Svaren agreed, only the county council has the power to adopt an ordinance that requires enforcement.
Yet our county council wanted nothing to do with the Orca Protection Initiative. It was too bold for these politicians. You got robbed of your right to vote on the Orca Protection Initiative. Initiative power was overruled in favor of the power of the county council. Yes, our Home Rule Charter is a sham.
Though the Southern Residents have largely abandoned their home waters, the whale watch industry is skyrocketing with a 78 percent increase in businesses since 2011, a potential of 138 active vessels and a multifold increase in revenues.
Humpbacks, transient orca, grey whale, and minke comprise 85 percent of whale sightings. Yet the industry claims “irrevocable loss” if they are forced to give the Southern Residents more space. This is a shameful lie from an industry afraid to face responsibility. We need to call out the whale watch industry for prioritizing profits over protecting the endangered Southern resident orca and encourage visitors to respect whales by watching from shore.
Giving the Southern residents some space is the least and the most immediate thing we can do while we begin in earnest the long-term effort of restoring the salmon, and health of the Salish Sea.