Coal, oil threat shrouds image of frolicking orcas

jdodge@theolympian.comJanuary 2, 2014 

One of my favorite, fanciful images from the past year revealed nearly three dozen splashing, tail-slapping orca whales encircling a Washington state ferry Oct. 29 as it approached the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal en route from Seattle.

As if that image alone isn’t enough to make the spirit soar, there was even more to the story. The ferry was carrying about 500 Suquamish tribal artifacts from the Burke Museum at the University of Washington to their ancestral home on the island.

The tools, decorative items and bits of rock and bone had been dug up some 60 years ago from a tribal winter village site that was once the home of Chief Sealth, also known as Chief Seattle. They were finally returned to the tribe to display in a tribal museum completed in 2012.

“We believe they were welcoming the artifacts home as they made their way back from Seattle, back to the reservation,” said Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. He happened to be aboard the ferry that day, and saw the whales, members of the Southern Residents J and K pods, surround the ferry.

Coincidental whale behavior or a welcome home ceremony? Believe what you want, but don’t belittle those who saw deep meaning in the moment.

Then, on the last day of 2013, the Internet and television news offered up a different kind of image. Billowing clouds of toxic black smoke from an oil train derailment and explosion near the town of Casselton, N.D., a reminder of the danger and risk entailed in the rapid rise in crude-oil rail shipments from the fracking fields of North Dakota.

So what’s the connection between the oil trains lumbering west across the northern plains and the orca whales frolicking in Puget Sound? In a perfect world — there isn’t one. But this isn’t a perfect world. If the fossil fuel industry has its way, oil shipments by rail and pipeline and coal trains will be arriving at Washington ports and oil refineries in record numbers in the years ahead. Much of that fuel will move on barges and ships that ply the waters that orca whales call home.

The three Southern Resident pods, or families, of orca whales number 80 entering the new year, which is four fewer than at the same time a year ago.

And for the first time that marine mammal researchers and whale watchers can remember, the J, K, and L pods spent very little time in the waters of the San Juan Islands this summer, perhaps due to the paucity of Fraser River chinook salmon they rely on so much for their summer diet.

Dwindling salmon runs have played a major role in this fish-eating species’ decline in recent decades, a decline that led to their listing as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005.

The threats just keep piling up for this iconic ruler of the Salish Sea. Now, as United States and Canada energy interests rush to extract oil from their heartlands, and try to boost coal shipments to China, which is already choking to death on air pollution from coal-fired plants, the killer whales are threatened more than ever by fossil fuel spills in their already food-depleted waters.

I’m reminded of all that could keep going wrong for the Southern Residents pods by Howard Garrett, co-founder, along with Susan Berta of the Orca Network, a nonprofit whale-advocacy organization that formed in November 2001. While the orca whales the Whidbey Island-based group keep tabs on and educates the public about are shrinking in numbers, the number of subscribers to the network’s whale sightings list grew to 10,000 last year, joined by about 37,000 fans of the Orca Network Facebook page.

Garrett makes the point that public support of the orcas’ plight continues to gain strength in the Puget Sound region. This summer, the state’s Puget Sound ferry fleet will welcome a new vessel, Tokitae, named in honor of the last survivor of all the Southern Resident orcas that were captured and placed in captivity decades ago. And the film documentary “Blackfish” has raised public awareness of the inhumanity of imprisoning orcas in aquariums and zoos.

Also, Orca Network will take a big leap forward in public visibility with the opening of the Langley Whale Center in Langley, Whidbey Island, on March 1. The whale center featuring exhibits of gray whales, orcas and other Puget Sound marine mammals is just one block from Whale Bell Park, which is a great place to see gray whales and orcas swim where they belong — in their native waters, free of pollution from a catastrophic oil spill.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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