We’re witnessing the starvation and extinction of a species

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By PRISCILLA EWBANK

On July 26, I was out at East Point on Saturna Island for the second day in a row. Slack tide was at about 5 to 6 p.m. that week. Little did I know that J- and K-pod members are interested in slack tide as well.

A strong current comes up from the San Juans. East Point is a premier land-based whale-watching site. As I came up to the cliffs on July 26, I heard the huge breaths that signal whales. I started to run down the trail. As I burst through the pines, onto the open sandstone, there they were: 10 or 12 of them swimming in a line perpendicular to the shore in a long steady line, Mount Washington behind them. A sight to behold. Saturna islanders and visitors lined the shore. Whale boats, finally, due to new regulations, not herding them or channelling them, or dividing the pod so it was forced to travel through them. Everyone was quiet, speaking softly. This is one of the homes for J-, K- and L-pods. They are our most treasured summer visitors, inspiring the most awe and with the most money made off of them. Last year they were hardly around, fishing everywhere for basic sustenance.

Our own Saturna Island Marine Education Society has been going full bore since former prime minister Stephen Harper dissolved science. We created and hosted the first Orca Symposium to present the Story of Moby Doll. The theme was how we have changed as a culture from killing orcas to idolizing them and seeking to understand them. All of the original players attended, from the man who harpooned Moby Doll, Ian McTaggart-Cowan, Ken Balcom, all of the original scientists and some of the whale catchers who took so many individuals out of J-pod and now the new top players in the field of orca research. Scientists like Lance Barrett Reynolds of the Vancouver Aquarium who has developed a method of flying drones over the pods to see the place behind their skull whose size can predict who will die from starvation. Balcom, who watches and is part of every innovation and incident from Washington state. So, we know that we do “not know” that they are starving to death. We know we can change culturally enough to treasure them, but not enough to keep their world intact so that we can keep them in this world with us.

We have come to clearly identify them and yes, even love them but not be able to respect them and see that their needs are met.

Hundreds of people come to see them in whale boats each day or maybe two days.  There are two huge catamarans as well as the smaller pontoon boats that follow them around all day from May to October when they are here for summer fishing and living. These people want to see orcas in their habitat. They all respond the same way as Gulf Islanders: they are transfixed. The whale-boat operators themselves are touched by what they see on their many trips following the pods.

I cannot tell you how deeply sad I am to bear witness to what I now understand is the process of their extinction. I have lived here for 40 years through all of the changes, from catching them in bays, killing some as they sought to move them, to hearing the confessions of a Saturna resident who was part of the free-for-all capturing them, and the man who shot the harpoon and captured Moby Doll who spoke at the symposium.  Both confessed to a deep change of heart as they grew to know the southern residents.

I thought that we would do it. That we humans would be able to apply the science we know and so religiously follow: science-based decisions and follow-through on innovative strategies to resolve this situation and share the earth’s bounty with another species by adjusting our behaviours. That we would value some creature that is so like us in so many ways, with culture and social behaviours that are comprehensible to us. Would we really stand by and let them slowly starve and drive them to their deaths for want of food?

What I hear is they just sorta died because they chose a restricted diet of one kind of salmon, because we needed to transport the oil, because we needed all the resources of chinook and waterways they require to survive. Why can’t they adjust and decide to eat another kind of salmon, to not echolocate, to stay out of the underwater testing grounds?

Instead of smashing spray and bursting whales from the Salish Sea, we will have marvellous inquiries and examinations of why they became extinct. Requiems of science trotted out.

Kinder Morgan and the likes, such as LNG development, will prattle on about environmental studies and be hugely relieved that such an iconic figurehead for ecological considerations will be terminated. What about that mother orca shoving her baby into the air again and again for days after its death? People don’t like that — rhetoric fails — an arrow to the heart, we “know” what that picture shows. Will we manifest that connection into action?

Despite the best efforts of many individuals and groups dedicated to their survival, we refuse to take the necessary steps. DFO will obfuscate and hem and haw that they don’t have enough evidence and can’t really do anything.

And now I get it. Southern resident orcas are on the slow path to extinction as they die from actual starvation under the reflection of summer sunlight under the Salish Sea, under our noses. Inbreeding and then from attrition as the males and females are the wrong ages to mate, just like the pod in Prince William Sound is doing from devastation from the Exxon Valdez spill. Dying, one by one, inexorably. 

Why can’t we do what they have done in the Great Lakes for belugas? How about for right whales? Many people have asked that we allow the chinook salmon runs to rebuild. That we suspend for even just a year commercial and sport fishing for chinook.  I have never heard the whales make sounds above the water. On the day I describe above, some of us on the sandstone bluffs heard two of them vocalizing. I have never seen them mill around the outside of East Point peninsula. Then they went back and forth fishing everywhere. I have never seen that before. People on the bluffs told me a newborn southern resident orca had died.

Whatever I saw and heard from the whales, internally a great shift has taken place inside me. We in this region are failing this resident species.

I am a person given to science and measured emotion. I watched J- and K-pod fishing further and further towards the Fraser River, whale boats trailing, and I cried.

Thanks for listening, Gulf Islanders. I know that you pay attention and care.

The writer is a long-time Saturna Island resident.

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