US cities declare inherent rights for endangered killer whales swimming in the Salish Sea

Two US cities near British Columbia have made efforts to protect endangered Southern Resident orcas that have become a political poster boy for climate change on both sides of the border.

On December 5, David Faber, the mayor of Port Townsend – on the north coast of Washington state, nearly 60 kilometers southeast of Victoria – signed a proclamation declaring the inherent rights of orcas.

These include “the right to life, self-reliance, culture, free and safe passage, an adequate supply of food from natural sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional, or mental harm. “, we read in the document.

A week later, on December 12, the mayor of Gig Harbor, 28 kilometers south of Port Townsend, did the same.

A group of six people, four of them in whale costumes, are pictured inside what appears to be a US government office.
Members of the North Olympic Orca Pod group attend a Port Townsend council meeting where Mayor David Faber (middle right) declared the inherent rights of Southern Resident Killer Whales. (Submitted by the City of Port Townsend)

Southern resident killer whales, commonly known as killer whales, are endangered species in Canada and the United States. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, their numbers have dwindled to around 73 whales this year.

The Chinook Challenge

Southerners have no natural enemies, but are threatened by pollution and climate change.

They feed only on chinook salmon, and the population of this particular fish has dropped dramatically over the past 100 years due to human actions, including agriculture, dam construction, industrial activity, and the destruction of estuaries.

Over 98% of the diet of southern resident killer whales is Chinook salmon. (Vancouver Aquarium/NOAA/Jamie Lusch)

The fragile food chain is also threatened by temperature changes in the ocean.

According to the United Nations, the oceans absorb about 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans. This contribution of CO2 modifies the chemistry of the water, create a ripple effect on the food chain.

Michelle Bender, director of ocean campaigns for the Earth Law Center in the United States, describes the proclamations as a dream come true – something she and other activists have been calling for for years.

“This emerging legal framework is really taking off internationally. We’re seeing it in over 30 countries, from local to national,” Bender said.

Legal implications

Although the proclamations are not legally binding, Bender says they serve as statements of community values ​​and affirmations that can be used as a springboard for further action.

Speaking on CBC On the island On Wednesday, Bender said she hopes to get more Washington state communities to do the same in order to pressure the governor to take action.

Vancouver-based animal rights lawyer and professor Victoria Shroff says she likes the idea — even though the proclamations aren’t legally binding.

“It is asking for cooperation, using the principles of its health: interconnection between human life and animal life,” she said.

A small killer whale is seen swimming with a much larger one in the sea.
K45, the new orca calf of the K Pod group of southern resident killer whales, is spotted with her mother K20 off Vancouver Island in July. (Whale Research Center)

Shroff also said the decision recognizes that orcas are sentient beings who are clearly intelligent and have their own culture.

“And saying, ‘Hey, orcas are sentient beings. They display feelings like grief. They are clearly intelligent, they have culture.”

Bender and Shroff say they are delighted to see the idea of ​​“nature rights” – recognizing the rights of the environment and all the living species that inhabit it – continue to grow.

CBC has contacted Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) for a statement regarding the US statements, but DFO said it would not be able to comment in time for publication.

Artwork with the words 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' written on it.  The work is an abstract representation of whales in the water.
(CBC British Columbia)

To learn more about the threats facing Southern Resident Killer Whales and the efforts to save them, listen to the original CBC British Columbia podcast Killers: J Pod on the Brinkhosted by Gloria Macarenko.

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