Submitted by Sorrel North
For nearly a year, Gov. Jay Inslee’s task force gathered experts from across the state to create a plan to save the Southern resident orca from starvation and extinction. The task force recommendations were sent to Gov. Inslee who approved, among many other measures, a moratorium on whale watching the Southern residents for three years. As he put it, “… someone who is starving should not be scrambling for that last morsel that can keep them alive.”
The bill was sent to budget committees where it is currently being rewritten. Then it will be voted on by the Legislature. Pacific Whale Watch Association’s hired lobbyist, Tony Sermonti, PWWA President Jeff Friedman and a group of whale watching operators have successfully convinced committee members to eliminate the moratorium. As per staff notes on testimony, PWWA lobbyist and members argued, “There is no correlation between vessel distance and noise the orca receive.” They also claim whale watching boats serve as a buffer between the orca and Navy sonar testing and actually protect the orca from recreational boaters. The former arguments are absurd, and the latter, while convincing to the ignorant, is false. I have watched whales from shore since 1982. Up until 20 years ago, I rarely saw any boats around the orca. Now, recreational boaters (like the rest of us) know exactly where the whales are because they are surrounded by dozens of whale-watching vessels.
Distance guidelines have already proven to be a dismal failure. Some whale watching operators routinely herd, pursue and position themselves in the path of the orca. This behavior has been witnessed by dozens of local fisherman, boaters and islanders on shore. The whale watching industry claims to revere the Southern resident orca and state they spend less than 15 percent of their time viewing them, yet dozens of these same operators showed up to testify in Olympia claiming the moratorium would irreparably harm their business.
A multitude of studies conclude underwater vessel noise has a dire impact on the Southern resident’s ability to echolocate—in some estimates cutting their foraging time up to three to five hours per day. New studies conclude that vessel exhaust is poisoning the orca when they come up for air. Gas and oil leaked into the water by all vessels is contributing to the demise of invertebrates and forage fish on up the chain. Yet PWWA has successfully deflected the conversation entirely onto the salmon issue. Yes, the orca are starving and need more fish—and recovery of Chinook salmon is going to take years. The agricultural community is vehemently opposed to dam breaching, and the EPA just ruled against cooling the Columbia River for migrating salmon. There is only one solution that will help the orca immediately: allowing them peace and quiet to hunt for the scarce amount of fish that exist.
But science and facts do not appear to prevail, in our country or in our county. Only a handful of whale watching companies are even based in San Juan County. Most are from Canada and the mainland, and those tourists never set foot here. Statistics show that only a minute fraction of visitors come to the San Juan Islands to watch whales. However, this multibillion-dollar industry has successfully paid off Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research, the San Juan Island Visitor’s Bureau and a multitude of other players who fully support the industry. Why? Because in our greed-driven economy, money and profit are more important than anything, even the environment upon which we all depend. Even the survival of two of the most intelligent species on earth—whales and humans.