by Sorrel North
Another Southern resident orca is missing and presumed dead. It’s heartbreaking to watch a sociable, highly intelligent species going extinct, right before our eyes. Unfortunately, their tragic story has made these whales famous; here in the Salish Sea, they are top money-generators. Urgent efforts to save them have produced few results, yet the Southern resident population helps support not only the multi-million-dollar whale watching industry but any number of researchers, photographers, writers and organizations.
Looking back on the live capture era horrifies us, yet since then, humans have made millions of dollars taking out whale-watching tours to view the Southern residents. We’ve written books and movies about them, produced and sold quantities of orca paraphernalia, received countless grants to study the whales and countless donations to save the whales. Meanwhile, the whales themselves — who love and grieve as deeply and profoundly as we do — continue to suffer and die, one by one.
A commissioned study by Earth Economics estimated the value of whale watching in San Juan County, and the economic damages if the Southern resident population collapsed. It concluded that whale watching brings 216 million dollars to the Puget Sound region and San Juan County, and supports more than 1,800 jobs. This study has been widely quoted by those who view the Southern residents in terms of their “economic value.” But it turns out these grossly inflated figures were produced (according to Appendix D) from 37 usable visitor surveys collected on San Juan Island, 28 of which were filled out on whale-watching boats.
The most crucial problem facing the Southern residents isn’t lack of prey, it’s the mindset of humans. We’ve dammed up the rivers, overfished the seas, poisoned the waters, and we’re still chasing the orca around in boats as if they belong to us. Of course scarce chinook salmon is a colossal issue that must be addressed. But agriculturalists and power companies are threatening litigation in opposition to removing the four lower Snake River dams. It will likely be a lengthy and expensive fight. The Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project cost millions of dollars and was contested and blocked for decades. Restoring salmon runs is crucial, but it’s not a short-term solution.
In the meantime, we know that vessel noise and disturbance is the second leading cause of the Southern residents’ decline. Surely we can take immediate steps to reduce their stress levels and provide them with every opportunity to hunt and forage successfully. We can create a whale protection zone in their core feeding habitat off of San Juan Island during the months they are in residence here. We can ban whale watching by all vessels and pay for year-round enforcement. We can encourage visitors to watch whales from the shore and use environmentally friendly products.
It’s estimated that by 2050, half of all species on earth may be extinct, including the Southern resident orca. There are only 72 whales left. How can we continue to watch them die and not do everything in our power to help?