In the mid 1990s, I was living in Washington, D.C., not far from where I was born and raised in upstate New York. Friends convinced me to take a trip to a place I had never heard of for a week: the San Juan Islands. It was nothing short of a revelation — the islands were the most beautiful place I had ever been. We saw orcas, harbor seals, eagles, osprey, Minke whales and Dall’s porpoises. We visited half a dozen islands, and I was hooked. Within 18 months, I left the East Coast for good and moved to Bellingham, and to this day our family spends as much time in the islands and the Salish Sea as possible.
As beautiful as the Salish Sea is, there is far more happening below the water’s surface than above it. Almost all of this we cannot see. But Tahlequah changed all of that for me. The decades of neglect and damage sustained by the Salish Sea were summed up in the orca’s 17-day, 1,000-mile journey, during which she commanded our region and the world’s attention while carrying her dead calf day after day, mile after mile.
It is hard to imagine, but some threats to the Salish Sea and to orca whales are on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc globally, and the cruise ships that helped spread this deadly virus have been gone from Pacific waters for well over a year. That has given all of the Salish Sea a much-needed break. But on July 19, the threat returns with cruises launching from Seattle. These ships have outsized climate impacts. They are floating cities that burn dirty bunker fuel that pollutes our air, and they dump their various waste streams that pollute our oceans. Rather than address these impacts head on, the industry is pushing for a false solution: scrubbers.
Scrubbers remove sulfur from the dirty bunker fuel that cruise ships burn. But you won’t find piles of black dust below the decks, because scrubbers take that air pollution and dump it directly into the ocean. For the Salish Sea, this means highly acidic sulfur, endocrine-disrupting PAHs, heavy metals and more. Just the kind of toxic pollution impacting salmon, orcas and all forms of ocean life in our region. And cruise ships do this in parts of the Salish Sea that are legally defined as No Discharge Zones.
We are past the tipping point. The Salish Sea needs not only fewer threats, but restoration. Gov. Jay Inslee has been a champion for orcas and a national leader on climate issues. The cruise industry needs to be transformed, and the time is now. Updates to a voluntary agreement are being negotiated between the cruise industry and the state Department of Ecology right now, with nearly 25,000 people calling for a ban on the dumping of scrubber sludge in all of the Salish Sea.
To its credit, the Port of Seattle has recently joined a growing list of states and countries around the world — from California and Connecticut to Singapore and Scotland — that have restricted the use of scrubbers, by banning the dumping of scrubber sludge while cruise ships are at berth in Seattle. But for the rest of the Puget Sound, it’s open season for cruise ships to dump their scrubber sludge. Why would we allow cruise-ship waste of any kind in our waters?
We can prove that there’s a better way in Washington state — just like our state has proven that a clean electricity grid is possible, and now the rest of the country is following. Where better to start with real solutions — like limiting ship speeds, mandating shore power and preventing dumping — than the life and livelihood sustaining waters of the Salish Sea?
These waters have provided for people, orcas and salmon for thousands of years, but the Salish Sea is at risk now. We have come to a moment in history when there is no option but to reverse the damage that has been done in the Salish Sea, in order to preserve it for the future, for all of us. Tahlequah sent us a message that is impossible to ignore. Will Gov. Inslee listen to her?
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