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A New Year Means a New Chance to Save our Orcas!

As you reflect back on 2013, you may remember moments of both triumph and tragedy in your life. You may think about the highs and lows of the year and use those memories to reflect on what you want to change, or what kinds of New Year’s resolutions you want to try and keep this year. For me, 2013 was the year I finally gathered the courage to change a lot of the things about my life that I didn’t like – I walked away from an unhappy marriage and, after years of spending the summers only here, packed my bags and drove my car across the country to finally settle in my favorite place in the world. It was also the year that I accomplished my lifelong dream of being paid to take people out to see orcas in the wild. I became a professional marine naturalist, after a lifetime of dreaming and several seasons of slogging it out as an intern. I had to pinch myself on a daily basis; I got to interact with up to 80 new people every day, from all over the world, and received a paycheck just for sharing my love for whales with them.

However, it was the most difficult year in history, as far as whale-watching goes. The southern resident killer whale population (SKRWs, as they’re known to the naturalist community), lost four orcas this past year and had no new births. This is an extremely alarming trend; the population is down to its lowest number since 2001, 80 orcas in total. Just for some comparison, the northern resident killer whale community found off the coast of Vancouver Island currently has over 200 whales in its population, and they feed on the same fish that our orcas do.

A lot of good efforts have been made to help restore the SRKW population; they’re simply not enough to stabilize the rapidly dropping numbers. Researchers believe that a combination of overfishing of king (or chinook) salmon, too many boats, and too much pollution in the Puget Sound waters is to blame.  J and K pods each have only three male orcas currently able to reproduce, which is the lowest number that can exist and still maintain the breeding population. The disappearance of the orcas that so many people come to our island to see is a very real possibility.

Fortunately, the state of Washington is starting to realize that. They recently awarded $45 million to fund various salmon restoration projects around the state. Bringing back a healthy population of chinook salmon is the number one priority for saving our orcas. “Grant recipients will use the money to remove barriers that prevent salmon from migrating, reshape rivers and streams and replant riverbanks so there are more places for salmon to spawn, feed, rest, hide from predators and transition from freshwater to saltwater and back again,” said a Dec. 5 press release by the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office.

It is heartening to realize that the government is starting to care about the state of our salmon and, by definition, our orcas. Some fear it may be too late; that salmon should have been better protected in the first place. And that may be true; only time will tell.

In the meantime, there are lots of things you can do to help our orcas. Check this list out if you’re considering making a donation at tax time; even if you don’t have a penny to spare, there’s ways you can help.

1) Filmmaker Rick Wood, in association with Orca Network (run by Howard Garrett, a local resident and world-renowned orca expert), is trying to raise money to make a movie about the SRKW’s and what it will take to keep them preserved for generations ahead of us to enjoy. You can learn more about the film and donate here. What a great way to raise awareness about not only our whales, but the beauty of San Juan Island in general.

2) Get involved with Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, a local non-profit organization. They are the main fundraising force behind a project that aims to create a “whale protection zone” along the west side of San Juan Island; this would be a protected area where no boats or people would be allowed. They are looking for people to donate, or even just volunteer their time doing research. You can learn more about their various projects here.

3) Support the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor by making a donation, becoming a member, or adopting an orca. Members receive free admission to the museum and discounts on all the great whale-related gifts available for purchase, at the museum or in the online store. Adopting an orca makes a great gift for yourself or a loved one; for $35, you get a year of monthly updates about the state of the SKRWs, and a personalized certificate of adoption for the whale of your choice.

4) Write to your local government. Here are some suggestions of people to contact.

Senator Maria Cantwell
915 Second Avenue, Suite 3206
Seattle, WA, 98174
Phone: 1-888-648-7328
On the web: Patty Murray
2988 Jackson Federal Building
915 2nd Avenue
Seattle, WA 98174
Phone: 206-553-5545
Toll Free: 866-481-9186
On the web:
Governor Jay Inslee
Office of the Govenor
PO Box 40002
Olympia, WA 98504-0002
Phone: (360) 902-4111
On the web: Rick Larsen
Wall Street Building
2930 Wetmore Ave., Suite 9F
Everett, WA 98201
Phone: 425-252-3188
Toll Free: 1-800-562-1385

5) Make more eco-friendly choices about the products you use in your home. Energy efficient light bulbs and appliances are a win-win; they’ll save you hundreds each year on your electric bill and are better for the environment. Water pollution is one of the biggest problems facing our orcas; by purchasing “green” household cleaners and soaps, such as those from Seventh Generation, you can ensure that what goes down your pipes won’t hurt the whales.

6) Be very selective when purchasing seafood, whether it be in the store or at a restaurant. Farm-raised fish is, in most cases, devastating to the wild ecosystem surrounding its hatcheries. It also is packed with antibiotics and other harmful chemicals that you don’t want in your fish anyway! Always make sure any seafood you purchase has a wild-caught certification on it. Finally, try to avoid catching or eating chinook salmon, as the orcas need all they can get. There are countless other delicious varieties of salmon to choose from!

7) When whale-watching, be sure to go with a company that is a current member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. That’s a group of 32 companies who are dedicated to following strict whale-watching guidelines, to ensure comfort and safety for the orcas before anything else, including guest satisfaction. For example, boats are required to stay 200 yards away from orcas at all times, watch them from a parallel position rather than from the front or back, stay at least half a mile from the shoreline, and not spend more than an hour with any one group of whales. You can also enjoy shore-based whale-watching, completely free and non-invasive, from several places around San Juan Island, most notably Lime Kiln Point State Park.

So as 2014 dawns, see what you can do to protect these beautiful marine mammals that we all love so much, and who call the Salish Sea their home. It is essential to their future and ours that we wake up and do something before it’s too late. We at the inns and Coho sincerely wish you and yours the happiest of new years!

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