Our endangered killer whales have returned for the summer, with the pods limping into Puget Sound the smallest they’ve been in 34 years. The federal government has chosen this precarious moment to gut the law that protects them.
A little more than a week ago, Howard Garrett’s network of 14,000 water watchers finally scored the sighting that was keeping him up nights.
“They’re back!” was how the report began.
Someone had seen some of the K pod of orcas off the west coast of the San Juan Islands. It was the first sighting in the inland waters since March of this smallest group of the highly endangered southern resident orcas.
“That first sighting, when they come back here for the summer, it used to be only a cause for joy,” said Garrett, who runs the Orca Network, a crowdsourced whale monitoring system. “Now what I feel is great relief. It means they’re still with us, for now.”
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The news buzzed around social media. By the next day, July 13, 17 sightings of J and K pod whales poured in. On July 14, last Saturday, there were 27 more sightings.
“We usually get two or three reports a day, at most, so this qualifies as big breaking news around here,” said Garrett from his home in Freeland, on Whidbey Island.
Reads one of the reports: “This is my second time ever seeing them. I still have chills!”
The anxiety is palpable. The Puget Sound’s signature black-and-white killer whales now number just 75, the lowest in 34 years. At the same time, the Trump administration has chosen this tenuous moment to try to gut the primary law that protects the orcas, the Endangered Species Act.
This past week the federal government announced it was easing key provisions of the law that are designed to protect habitat. It comes as orca advocates are desperately scrambling to protect more orca habitat, not less.
When the whales were first listed as endangered in 2005, they were believed to live mostly around here. So the “critical habitat” the law currently protects only includes waters in Puget Sound and Washington state.
But tagging studies later showed that this notion the orcas are “residents” is mostly a myth. We think they live here because this is where it’s easiest to spot them. It turns out they spend up to 90 percent of their time outside of Puget Sound, hunting salmon from San Francisco to Canada.
So the plan was to extend their “critical habitat” along the Oregon and Northern California coasts. That theoretically could bring restrictions on fishing, pesticide use and other things humans do to make life hard on the whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service had previously said it would extend the orca-habitat protections by 2017, but it still hasn’t done so.
“That they’re choosing now to weaken the Endangered Species Act is just going to make it even slower and harder to get critical habitat protection for the whales,” said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “Given the orcas’ precarious position, it’s terrible news for them.”
The U.S. House of Representatives isn’t helping. It recently passed a farm bill (renamed the “harm bill” by environmentalists) that would incredibly allow the spraying of pesticides into the water without a permit. Orcas are known to absorb pesticides and other chemicals such as flame retardants into their fatty tissues.
That farm bill passed the House by just one vote in June. It hasn’t yet passed the U.S. Senate.
Overall, the orcas are believed to be slowly starving to death, due to a decline in their main food, king salmon. Garrett’s “doom and gloom” view is that we’re not only not doing enough to save them, we’re now actively going backward.
“I don’t see any consensus developing to make the hard choices to bring them back,” he said. “With the Trump administration now pulling the rug out from under us, it’s all leading to paralysis, at exactly the wrong moment.”
For all the damage we’re doing to ourselves in politics right now — norms being violated, alliances shredded, civil standards discarded — we’re still probably not focusing on the real story. Politics, after all, can be repaired.
There’s a different kind of damage, of loss, that can be irreversible. It gets nowhere near the attention of our daily political drama. It’s Howard Garrett’s worst worry — that one summer, maybe sooner than not if we don’t snap out of it, the orcas are never coming back.