Far to the north, where the water runs chilly and beds of bull kelp hug the rocky coast, the orca whales are back. Since the days of the Indians, members of northern and southern resident pods have returned to the area around this time of year, mostly to mate and feed. The whales called “killers” travel hundreds of miles from the open ocean to the area between Johnstone Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, spanning Canadian waters and our own, at the mouth of Puget Sound. Today they are as much a part of Northwest culture as Mount Rainier, the Space Needle, and traffic on the floating bridges.
This year, however, the whales’ home waters are a little colder than usual. First, while the population of the three southern resident pods that frequent U.S. waters continues to decrease, the only whale that anyone seems to care about is a wayward orphan from one of the northern groups, scooped from the polluted waters off Vashon Island this spring. Perhaps more alarmingly, the federal organization that governs local marine life refused last month to protect these clearly declining southern residents under the Endangered Species Act, a law that would have all but ensured their survival.
The issues present a complicated paradox—it was undoubtedly important to save an orphan poisoned by the effects of human overpopulation, but intervention diverted an unbalanced share of public interest, federal money, and media attention from the whales that needed it most. Now, as researchers celebrate the successful reintroduction of the whale known as Springer to her pod, many fear that it may be too late to save more than this one whale, and that without similarly aggressive intervention on behalf of the southern residents as a whole, the population could be headed for extinction within the next 50 years.
“That orphaned whale is a little messenger telling us that our orcas are in grave danger,” says Ken Balcomb, who has studied the resident groups since 1976 and now serves as executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. “Instead of recognizing the breadth of this problem, learning from our mistakes, and trying to change the ways our presence negatively impacts the health of these whales, we’re ignoring the message and focusing on the welfare of the messenger.”
ALL FOR ONE
By now, the story of the Vashon orphan is as familiar as the saga of Microsoft. Nicknamed Springer by scientists, the whale was first spotted off of West Seattle in January. Clearly malnourished and suffering from a skin disease, the 2-year-old showed a particular fondness for floating logs and the Evergreen State ferry, frequently nuzzling against the boat when it was docked for the night. Scientists immediately identified the whale as A-73, so named for her birth order within her pod, a whale who lost her mother and a number of other family members in 2001.
Nothing captivates the human imagination like the struggle of a survivor, and the plight of this whale was no exception. “There’s no question that people were drawn to this truly remarkable individual,” says Helena Symonds, co-director of OrcaLab, a Canadian research organization on Hanson Island near Blackney Pass. “These are social creatures, and the notion that an animal [as young as Springer] could survive without its family for so long is pretty amazing.”
Springer’s story became the feel-good animal tale of the year, and thousands flocked to catch a glimpse for themselves. Lines on the Fauntleroy ferry were longer than anyone could remember in years. Kayakers and other recreational boaters ventured out in record numbers. Whale-watch outfits cashed in, too, chartering “See Springer” trips that sold out every time.
But as traffic around Springer increased, her condition worsened. Her skin disease spread from her mouth to her blowhole, she stopped eating, and she appeared lugubrious, even catatonic. When scientists determined that the whale could not get better without a change of scene, officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) decided to intervene. NMFS freed up money from the Prescott Stranding Grant program and arranged to have the whale transported to a makeshift holding pen near Manchester for further tests and observation.
With the announcement of a federally funded rescue, private donations came pouring in, stoking the attention of local and national media. In Bremerton, The Sun covered the animal like a celebrity. Seattle papers and TV stations joined in with daily updates, clamoring on the editorial pages for a swift and painless effort. On June 13, the day NMFS came to capture the whale, KOMO and KING staged live feeds, broadcasting real-time WhaleTV all day long. Even Peter Jennings got in on the action, closing his national newscast that same night with a fluffy feature from the waters of Puget Sound.
“People from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine, were talking about this whale,” says NMFS spokesperson Brian Gorman. “It was like Free Willy all over again.”
On the one hand, this hullabaloo helped save Springer. Yet the glut of attention prompted a vicious cycle of public relations and spending on the governmental level—the more concerned about the whale people seemed to get, the more resources NMFS had to expend to handle the situation. On the day of the rescue, Gorman worked 16 hours straight. Sources add that the rescue cost more than $60,000—the single most expensive marine mammal intervention since the effort following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1988.
Eventually, of course, these efforts paid off, and researchers transported Springer up north, where she found her family. Gorman estimates that the entire rescue, rehabilitation, and release process cost NMFS $200,000 worth of federal Prescott money, $80,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, and at least $100,000 in corporate cash and in-kind contributions— a grand total of about $380,000. Considering that the same organization has never budgeted more than half this amount to research Puget Sound marine mammals of any kind, the figure seems exorbitant. Still, NMFS regional coordinator Bob Lohn says his organization did what it had to do to ensure that the orphan survived until she could be reintroduced to her northern resident pod.
“We had never done anything like this, so we didn’t know how or what to budget,” Lohn explains. “The way we looked at it, this little whale provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for reintroducing a sexually mature female animal to its pod. We were prepared to do anything and everything to get that whale to safety.”
THE “DOUBLE STANDARD”
As Lohn and Gorman wrestled with the Springer issue, a team of NMFS biologists at the regional National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) office in Sand Point was grappling with another orca-related issue—the future of the southern residents. It’s no secret that this population has declined from 98 to 81 since 1995, and local environmental organizations petitioned NMFS last year to protect the whales formally under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Listing these whales as endangered would protect their habitat and force a cleanup of Puget Sound, empowering special interest groups to sue over noncompliance.
In theory, ESA protection was a no-brainer; the whales were in danger, and they deserved to be saved. On paper, however, scientists ran into some trouble. An 11-member NMFS Biological Review Team had to prove that the group in question had declined beyond repair and that it was a “significant” species or subspecies or a distinct population segment. Team members agreed the population had declined precipitously, but since current taxonomy classifies all orcas as a single species, they vacillated over the “significance” of the southern residents to the species overall. Were the southern residents genetically distinct? Would the 200-member northern resident population re-colonize the habitat if their southern neighbors died off? Biologists claimed there wasn’t enough information to answer questions like these and therefore decreed that labeling the group a distinct population segment was problematic without more specific data.
“If the law says there are only certain categories under which you can list a species for protection, you can’t say, ‘Let’s list anyhow and cheat this one time,'” says Marilyn Dahlheim, a biologist with the federally funded National Marine Mammal Laboratory who also served on the review team. “Of course we wanted to save these whales, but the law is the law, and we had a responsibility to stick to it.”
What followed was perhaps the lowest point in the southern residents’ march to extinction: Citing the need for further research in the areas of genetics, distribution, and ecosystem relationships, NMFS declined to list the southern residents under the ESA, instead granting them “depleted” status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. Though this option requires NMFS to prepare a conservation plan and a list of site-specific management measures designed to promote recovery, the decision basically affords no new protections for the 81 whales.
Lohn announced the decision on June 25. The following day, front-page stories in local papers reported the announcement baldly. One local television station ran a feature “investigating” the decision, focusing on a report from the Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance that alleges whale-watch traffic negatively impacts a whale’s sonar ability to hunt for food. (Lohn vowed to crack down on what he said were “meddlesome” whale-watch boats that break the 100-foot buffer zone required by the MMPA.) There were no follow-up stories, no daily reports, and no editorial page efforts to spark intervention.
“It was a one-day story,” says Michael Kundu, whose nonprofit organization, Project SeaWolf, was involved with the Springer rescue from the very beginning. “If everyone was so interested in saving whales, this decision should have gotten tons more attention than it did. Nobody really focused on the significance of what the government was saying. After the Springer [rescue], this was a total double standard.”
Kundu was not alone in his outrage; environmentalists across the board likened the NMFS decision to a death knoll, attacking the media for silent complicity and assailing Lohn’s attack on the whale-watch industry as a witch hunt. Brent Plater, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the ESA petition, said the decision was a “new low in the annals of the Fisheries Service,” adding that the Orca Relief Citizen’s Alliance report about boat traffic was ill-founded and that the whale-watch industry has policed itself in recent years more than NMFS enforcers ever have.
Fred Felleman, a board member of the Orca Conservancy in Seattle, took these criticisms a step further, saying NMFS “scapegoated” the whale-watch industry for a problem much more far-reaching and costly to address. Felleman accused NMFS of “covering up” environmental abuses the government perpetrates: “Most of the conditions in Puget Sound can be attributed to cargo ship traffic and the military, which believes it’s cheaper to leave pollutants than clean them up,” he ranted. “Do you think the government wants to take on big business, or that in a time of war, it would harass the Navy over some dead whales? Think again.”
Still others insisted that if NMFS had spent nearly as much time and money researching southern resident orcas as it had to rescue Springer, questions surrounding single-species classification would have disappeared years ago. A Seattle Weekly investigation uncovered that NMFS has not funded major distribution or abundance research in the Pacific Northwest since 1976, when it awarded Ken Balcomb a $30,000 grant for an extensive photo-identification effort that still serves as the bible for data on the nearly 300 northern and southern resident whales. In the areas of genetics and taxonomy, expenditures have been equally insignificant—NMFS sources decline to give specifics but admit the agency has spent no more than $50,000 overall.
Even today, the $130,000 that NMFS recently earmarked for research on northern and southern resident orcas pales in comparison to the $450,000 set aside to study orcas in Alaska (still a small amount considering there are an estimated 1,200 whales there). Furthermore, most of the current money for studying orcas in the Pacific Northwest is diverted from funds to research endangered chinook salmon, which means the efforts must pertain to predator-prey relationships, only one facet of data on complex ecosystem relationships.
“Much of our most current data on orca whales has been collected by private individuals who do it out of concern for the survival of the species,” says Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, Ken’s son, who also has contributed whale research to a number of environmental organizations. “For whatever reason, it’s clear the U.S. government simply does not want to get involved in spending major money on studying and saving these whales.”
HELP FROM ABOVE
Across the border, things are a little different. Over the years, the dearth of American study on orca whales has enabled Canadian researchers to dominate research and conservation. A majority of the scientists who currently publish about orcas are from Vancouver Island, and experts from the Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Science Centre were the ones to receive Springer from NMFS and monitor the reintroduction to her pod. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO)—British Columbia’s version of NMFS—listed both northern and southern resident populations under the province’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife three years ago. At the federal level, the Canadian House of Commons recently passed a Species at Risk Act, which would grant the orcas even further protection once ratified by the Senate later this year.
Most Canadian officials are hesitant to comment directly on the U.S. decision to decline southern resident orcas protection under the ESA, though many privately expressed shock, saying they were “appalled” at the U.S. for not considering a group of animals that frequently migrates back and forth over the border a priority. Graeme Ellis, a DFO research technician who has spent decades working with Ken Balcomb, says that overdevelopment in the region already has stressed the whales and to deny them protection only exacerbates these problems. Patrick Higgins, political and economic relations officer with the Canadian Consulate General here in Seattle, adds that with fragile animals living in a fragile ecosystem, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“In Canada, we don’t wait for 100 percent perfect science before we decide that a population is about to crash,” he explains. “The history of marine mammal management all over the world is that the moment we tell ourselves everything is fine, it really isn’t.”
Ellis cites the cooperation involved with resolving the Springer situation as an example of how things should work: NMFS agreed to rescue the whale; Canada signed on to take custody and reintroduce the animal to its family. But much of the major scientific burden with Springer now lies on Canada.
Here in Seattle, local politicians are trying to force bilateral protection through international cooperation and planning. In a May 31 letter addressed to Lohn and Dr. John Davis, DFO’s regional director general, Washington’s U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray called for a set of cooperative international “protocols” to guide decision making with respect to orphaned whales in the future. Cantwell reiterated this plea in her June 1 remarks at the University of Washington’s Orca Recovery Conference.
“I recognize there are existing treaties between the countries on the subject of marine management,” she said, referring to the 1998 Pacific Salmon Treaty. “But cooperation between the U.S. and Canada is a major component in the overall recovery [of southern residents] . . . because there’s no doubt they are in trouble.”
There are other opportunities for cooperation, too. Unbeknownst to most Americans, an orphaned 3-year-old male from the southern resident population has been hanging around Nootka Sound on the west side of Vancouver Island since late last year. American researchers say that because the whale, identified as L-98, has attracted considerably less attention than its Puget Sound counterpart, neither NFMS nor DFO has felt pressure to intervene. Still, they add, now that Springer has proven that reintroductions can work, an extensive lobbying effort to return the sexually mature orca to its genetically strapped population could force the governments to unite and act.
Another potential unifying issue is water pollution. Peter Ross, a research scientist with the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sydney, B.C., has spent years studying the differences in water quality from the Johnstone Strait to Tacoma Narrows and says toxin levels near Seattle and Bremerton are as much as 10 times those near Victoria and Vancouver. Because northern and southern resident orcas frequent the same general area, and are protected as endangered under Canadian law, the provincial government technically could put pressure on NMFS to clean up the Sound. Ross admits, however, that international politics make the odds of any such pressure fairly slim.
“Considering that we know we’ve got to work [with NMFS] down the road, I’d say that sort of adversarial encounter is unlikely. The last thing we want to do is alienate the American government and lose any semblance of cooperation for the tasks ahead.”
BACK TO BASICS
How, then, can the southern resident orcas receive the kind of attention and protection afforded to Springer? Within hours of the NMFS decision, Plater and his colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity had filed a lawsuit against the government, an action that will force further review. The next day, Pam Johnson, field director at People for Puget Sound, held a press conference at Myrtle Edwards Park during which she outlined steps for a calculated backdoor attack to gain the local orca pods a chance at survival.
Johnson’s strategy assumes that if the federal government won’t grant southern residents the protection and funding they need to survive, perhaps the state government will. Her approach hinges on lobbying Gov. Gary Locke and state representatives to appropriate emergency funding for research to show that the whales are genetically unique. It also includes calls for increased efforts to clean up Puget Sound’s Superfund sites and a formal request for a rescue tugboat to help prevent oil spills in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“These are small steps the state can take to give the orcas a fighting chance,” Johnson says. “If we are in the business of saving whales, someone has to be putting money, resources, and energy into this [dwindling] population.”
Other environmental groups have vowed to wage other battles. At the Surfrider Foundation in Friday Harbor, regional coordinator Kevin Ranker says he hopes to continue lobbying for tighter enforcement of the Shorelines Management Act of 2000, a law designed to protect the habitats of the fish orcas eat that has been paralyzed by lawsuits. At Friends of the San Juans, also in Friday Harbor, executive director Stephanie Buffum says she plans to redouble efforts to research toxins in the Puget Sound food web, studying pollutants in fish as tiny as smelt and sand lance, which serve as meals for many of the salmon that local orcas eat.
Dr. David Bain, an affiliate assistant professor in UW’s psychology department, plans to stage a public relations campaign that publicizes environmental efforts. Bain masterminded the Orca Recovery Conference in June and says he and co-coordinator Will Anderson already are planning a follow-up conference for sometime early next year to further explore issues such as whale-watch interference, orca genetics, and the movement to tear down the Elwha Dam.
“There are countless issues in and around the Sound that affect our southern residents,” he notes. “As far as we see it, especially after it seems everyone’s attention has been diverted to A-73, you can never talk or raise awareness about them too much.”
Experts at NMFS have said that the government plans to conduct further research and re-evaluate its decision about ESA protection in 2006. And already, Dahlheim admits, members of the Biological Review Team have begun considering data they didn’t have during their first assessment. This process, however, may be nothing more than a formality—never in the ESA’s history has the government reversed a previous decision not to protect.
Whatever happens, as environmentalists and lawmakers wrangle over ways to address the dwindling numbers of southern resident orcas, former Secretary of State Ralph Munro says it’s important for every Puget Sound resident to rally around the whales the way they rallied around Springer. Munro led the fight in the 1970s to stop the capture of orcas for commercial purposes in Puget Sound; for him, the survival of the southern residents is an issue of local pride. From the porch of his house on San Juan Island overlooking Haro Strait, Munro says the orcas are an integral and irreplaceable part of local culture; in losing them, he states, we’d lose a bit of ourselves, as well.
“Through all of this, we must remember that dating back to the Indians, these whales are a part of everything that is the Northwest,” says Munro. “I only hope we can save them before it’s too late.”