EDITORIAL: Whales need our protection

We have re-named killer whales with the soft, fuzzy “orca” moniker, which is a good thing. People are more protective of cute creatures. But we really haven’t done much else to guarantee their continued existence in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands.

Today, we all love our orcas, but as their numbers decline we’re not doing enough to assure their continued existence in these waters. The population has dropped 20 percent since 1996 and there’s little more than wishful thinking to keep them from declining further. There are presently only about 80 whales in the J, K and L pods which call this area home.

The quality of life on Whidbey Island would suffer dramatically without our orca whales. Just knowing they’re out there is comforting, and the knowledge that we may be lucky enough to see them swimming down Admiralty Inlet or Saratoga Passage keeps people looking hopefully out their view windows and walking the beaches. If the orcas should disappear on our watch, future generations would never forgive us. And rightly so.

Hopes that the federal government would step in and order protective measures were dashed last month when the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to place orcas on the list of endangered species. It seems that our population is not distinct enough, and that orcas elsewhere aren’t so threatened. A lot of good that reasoning does people living on Whidbey and in the San Juans.

Perhaps the endangered species listing will come in time, but by then it may be too late. So it is up to state and local governments and individual citizens to do more to protect the orcas.

Island County is making some progress toward that goal with its Marine Resources Committee. Important salmon rearing habitats are being mapped and will some day be protected, and derelict fishing nets that take salmon out of the food chain are being removed from area waters.

The state needs to crack down on pollutants entering the waters, particularly heavy metals which may be affecting the orcas’ health and reproductive abilities. Salmon seasons should be set with the dietary needs of the orca whales in mind. Maybe if humans took fewer salmon orcas would have more to eat. Commercial and recreational whale watching boats should make doubly sure that their activities aren’t interfering with the whales’ natural lifestyles.

Individually, homeowners should sharply reduce or eliminate their own use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and keep their cars running cleanly. Also, support our local Orca Conservancy of volunteers working to save the local orca population.

Saving our orca whales won’t be easy or inexpensive, and it will take be a never-ending battle against pollution, inappropriate development and greed. But it’s a battle we can all cheerfully help with, because losing our orcas is unthinkable.

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