What’s the Fishue with Orca Whales?

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Advocacy, Clean Water, Policy, Wildlife

By Taylor Shedd, Inland Ocean Coalition Policy Manager

Some of you may know that June is orca awareness month. Few of you may know that there is a unique population of orca whales that live in the Pacific Northwest called the Southern Residents that are critically endangered. Even fewer of you may know that I, Taylor, am the Inland Ocean Coalition’s newest staff member serving as our Ocean Policy Manager. I am also an orca whale researcher in Washington state and am the Program Coordinator for the Soundwatch Program at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. Soundwatch is on-the-water education and research that mitigates risk and disturbance away from the Southern Residents in the heavily trafficked Salish Sea. If some of this is starting to sound familiar to you, it may be due to this whale, and this photo.

This is a photo of J-35 ‘Tahlequah’ who carried her deceased calf for 17 days last summer. I actually took this photo and monitored J-35 for 12 days over 1,000 nautical miles (5 days the whales were out in open ocean). This photo made it around the world and back again, and brought attention to the plight of the Southern Resident orca whales. However, this is not a new story.

The Southern Residents are estimated to have numbered around 200 individuals pre-exploitation. In the 1960s, the possibility of holding orca whales in captivity to make a profit was realized with the successful capture and care of Namu in Biritish Columbia, then housed on the Seattle waterfront. Namu did not survive for long, and the search for a replacement quickly lead us to the Southern Residents. Around this time researchers had just figured out how to identify individual orca whales, and realized that pods are made up of strong family and social bonds. In 1972, the last live capture of orca whales in the United States took place in Penn Cove in Washington where 47 Southern Residents were removed from the populations. Five did not survive the capture, and the rest were sent around the world to theme parks. The whales returned to the wild were mostly older individuals and males, since young females were targeted by theme parks for their reproduction potential. In 1975, there were only 71 Southern Residents left in the wild. Today there are 76.

In the late 90s there was an increase to 98 individuals in the population, but since then there has been a steady decline in the Southern Resident population. This decline lead to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration listing the Southern Residents as a distinct endangered population under the Endangered Species Act. In this listing, three main threats to the populations where listed as vessel disturbance, prey availability, and contamination. 

Great efforts have gone into reducing these risks to the whales with the most recent rendition being taken by Washington state Governor Jay Inslee. In March 2018, Inslee signed an executive order creating an Orca Recovery Task Force that would produce legislation to further aid in the recovery of the Southern Residents in a years time. Last summer was a difficult time for the whales and we had three high profile losses in the population: J-35’s calf (unnamed), J-50 ‘Scarlet’, and L-92 ‘Crewser’. A year has passed, so what’s changed? Four bills passed through the state legislature that came from the Task Force. Most of these changes focus on vessel disturbance, increasing approach distance by vessels from 200 to 300 yards, introducing a speed limit of 7 knots within a half mile of whales, and including Be Whale Wise information into state boater testing. 

Other bills targeted habitat restoration for salmon and forage fish, and increasing hatchery production in an effort to provide more prey for the Southern Residents. The Task Force is set to meet again in 2019 to establish longer term recovery efforts for the Southern Residents.

If you’d like to learn more about the Southern Residents, or be a part of the naming process for the two new calves, visit The Whale Museum’s website. If you are in the area and would like to volunteer for Soundwatch you can find information there as well. For those who would just like to help the whales there are many things you can do. Being informed and educated is a great first step, and even if you do not live in the Pacific Northwest there are things you can do everyday to help these whales. Being eco-friendly and using less single-use plastic benefits that environment as a whole. Purchasing truly sustainable seafood is a great way to reduce bycatch and impacts to the ecosystem. Being a part of the Inland Ocean Coalition, helping to educate your community and representatives, and sharing your voice can make the biggest difference. We’re excited to share our passion with you, and hope you share yours with us, so we can best protect all that we love.

Stand Up for Our Marine Sanctuaries and Monuments

Posted Leave a commentPosted in Advocacy, Policy, Take Action

By Jacob Villalobos, a trained Colorado Ocean Coalition Ocean Ranger

We all eat. We all breathe. We require water to live, and we are all subject to the effects of the weather and climate. No matter where you may be in this world, the ocean makes all of our lives possible. In our day to day lives, it can be easy to carry on without considering the natural processes that allow us to sustain our economies, enable our cultures, and plan for future generations. It can be difficult to comprehend the many connections we have to the ocean, especially if you live away from the coasts. But nonetheless, we are all critically dependent on a healthy, functioning ocean. And a healthy ocean requires an informed, mobilized public ready to protect it.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that would allow for the expansion of oil and gas exploration along US coastlines, a move that would endanger a host of marine sanctuaries along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, American Samoa, and Hawaii. The “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” aims to allow fossil fuel companies to expand their reach into regions of the American coast and beyond that were recently set aside for conservation by the Obama administration. In doing so, the future of 11 protected areas may be in jeopardy, as the Trump administration will begin to review the policy behind each sanctuary to either limit or abolish their protected status and weaken their protective capabilities.

President Barack Obama invoked a provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 to permanently ban the development of offshore drilling practices along large portions of the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts, an unprecedented act that would ensure his environmental legacy following the Paris Climate Accord and the designation of numerous American monuments and reserves, both on land and sea. In continuing his quest to dismantle the Obama legacy, President Trump has promised to revitalize the fossil fuel industry by crippling numerous environmental regulations he claims are harmful to the economy. Despite the downward trend in oil and gas prices and the continued rise of renewable energy, President Trump is adamant that the revival of American prominence on the world stage lies in our continued reliance on an outdated and dangerous energy system. He has said, “Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent.”

National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine Monuments are both types of marine protected areas (MPAs). The primary difference between the two is the process by which they are designated and the laws under which they are established. More broadly, marine protected areas are regions of seas, oceans, estuaries, and lake and river systems that are designated as limited or no use areas for the purpose of conserving biodiversity, ecosystems, and natural resources.

This is a centuries old idea that received modern revision during the 1950s and 1960s as fish stocks and marine resources began to plummet under the weight of industrial pressures. Using the Antiquities Act of 1906, a statute enacted by President Theodore Roosevelt, President Obama protected over 550 million acres of land and sea, and more than doubled the existing size of MPAs in the US, including the massive Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

The Trump Administration, through the Department of Commerce, has announced a 30 day public comment period on the review of National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments Designated or Expanded since April 28, 2007. This review opens up our nation’s underwater treasures to the threat of oil and gas exploration and development and the myriad dangers that come with this – seismic airgun blasting, oil spills, and an increase in the greenhouse gases that are warming our planet with devastating impacts on our ocean.

As citizens of inland America, it is essential that we be aware of the importance of marine protected areas, not only for their aesthetic value, but for their ability to revitalize and sustain natural resources that are critical to the wellbeing of our ourselves, our economy, and the generations that will come after us. Our communal waste, be it plastics, agricultural runoff, or industrial pollution, inevitably finds it way into the ocean, as we have seen in dramatic fashion with the rise of massive garbage patches and vast dead zones where little life can thrive. Our food and transportation choices impact marine food webs, creating emissions that are absorbed by the seas, increasing ocean acidity and and temperature and contributing to the melting of the planet’s ice sheets. Although we may live our lives hundreds or thousands of miles from a coastline, our actions and our knowledge of the collective impact of humanity on the ocean will nonetheless have an effect on its long term functionality and resilience.

Putting America first means protecting its natural treasures for all Americans, not exploiting their resources for short term gain for a very select few. It means keeping an eye on future generations and actively preparing a world for them that is as rich and beautiful for them as it has been for us. It means recognizing the true economic potential that lies in maintaining the oceans as they are, not in exploiting the combustible refuse of an ancient world that no longer exists. It means disseminating knowledge, founded in sound science, that opens our eyes to the true complexity of the seas, creating a community of inclusivity where all people identify with their many connections to the ocean. With the continued rise of denialism and rhetoric aimed at discrediting scientists and the realities of the dire state of this beautiful blue planet, the power of our communal voice has never been so important.

Take Action!
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation has written a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in opposition to revoking or weakening any of the designations or expansions of national marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments that are under review. Please add your name today and/or submit a comment to the Federal Register on why protecting these areas is important to you.