Extinction in the Salish Sea
- Written by Janet Thomas
Extinction. It is a word running rampant through the lexicon of these times. From the smallest of insects to the largest of mammals, these days, extinction is defining the horizon for too many forms of life on earth. And it's happening right here, in the waters of the Salish Sea and on the shores of San Juan Island.
The Southern Resident orca whales are facing extinction. They have gone from being "endangered" to "critically endangered." The breeding members of J, K and L pods are diminishing. Their food supply is diminishing. Their foraging areas are becoming less accessible as their echo-location abilities are diminished by the noise and interference of motor boats in their core critical habitat. "Whale-watching" is winning over the lives of the whales.
What sense does this make? As I listen to all the whale-loving rhetoric that goes on throughout San Juan County, I am continually stunned by the lack of attention to what can be done immediately to help our Southern resident neighbors: Restore some peace, quiet and spaciousness to them in their home waters. Allow them time to find available food, to share it with their families, to rest in their home waters, to play. These are all the things they did "back when"--before whale-watching-chasing-harassing became an almighty dollar on the shores of San Juan County.
At the recent Southern Resident Killer Whale Symposium in Vancouver, B.C., there were five First Nations leaders speaking about the sacred importance of the Southern Residents in their different tribal cultures. They shared different stories but their common commitment is to Seven Generation decision-making. How does what we do now impact the lives of the next seven generations? As the Southern Residents face extinction, why are we not paying attention to the future? Because, surprise, surprise, it is all about the money. Short-term dollars are winning over saving the lives of the Southern Residents. Those who know better, are turning a blind-eye to the tragic truth in favor of keeping the money rolling in.
The rhetoric is consistent: "The orcas don't even come here anymore so why worry about their local habitat?" I hear this response over and over accompanied by varying degrees of disdain and ridicule for my concern. But perhaps the Southern Residents have learned not to come home because it is no longer a safe home. When the statistics are looked at, the incidence of Southern Residents in local waters decreased as the number of whale-watching boats increased.
The Southern Residents are extremely intelligent; they are loyal to their families; they have complex languages; they have large active brains; they are considered "family members" by many Salish First Nations. Yet all we can do is see them as a commodity to exploit. Taking down dams, restoring salmon, cleaning up the Salish Sea--these all take time. But our Southern Resident neighbors don't have time. Is it possible for us to put them first in our day-to-day lives? Can we create an eco-tourism ethic in the training of naturalists, so they can be part of the solution rather than going out on boats that are part of the problem?
We live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Land-based "Save the Whales" nature tours could go a long way to inspire and educate the guests who come to San Juan County. And perhaps, just perhaps, save the future of our Southern Residents. As they go, so go we. If short-term profit continues to run roughshod over life itself, we, too, will be on the shores of extinction. All life is sacred. Taking a stand for the power and majestic beauty of the Southern Resident orca whales is taking a stand for ourselves.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."