Humans have practically doomed the orca. We must save them via new legal protections.

A southern resident orca breaches in Haro Strait just off San Juan Island, with Mt. Baker in the background.
A southern resident orca breaches in Haro Strait just off San Juan Island, with Mt. Baker in the background. Seattle Times file photo

The orca, or killer whale, is the apex predator of the oceans, a highly social and intelligent being with the second-largest brain in the animal kingdom. It is capable of transmitting and processing sound information with a sixth sense that, according to David Niewert, the author of “Of Orcas and Men,” is so sophisticated that it compares with the sound detection that humans have perfected with current technology. Weighing in at five tons, it has no natural enemies, save one – and that would be mankind.

Evidence of man’s complicity in the destruction of the orca is unfolding before our very eyes in the waters of Puget Sound. Despite well-intentioned efforts to save the orca, protect its native waters and improve its food supply, the solutions required to rescue the orcas in Puget Sound rank dead last against powerful commercial, political and cultural forces at work to maintain the status quo.

Scientists classify orcas observed off British Columbia and Washington state as “residents,” divided into northern and southern groups. The southern residents who spend the summer months in the inland waters of Puget Sound are the ones headed for extinction.

The unspeakable violence humans exacted on these most intelligent creatures defies explanation or justification. Once numbering as many as 250, their number is down to 74, now listed as endangered.

How did this happen? In 1970, onlookers were horrified as orcas were rounded up in a bay of Whidbey Island, where the whales screamed in distress as they breached the water trying to avoid nets that would ensnare them and remove them from family and waters home to orcas for at least 5,000 years.

Four were killed as they drowned in the nets. Seven were captured and sold to marine parks, including Sea World, where they lived in despicable conditions for animals with incredible range in wild waters. By the time the organizers were finished, 50 orcas were removed from their waters, and today, they are all dead, except Lolita. Sea World holds Lolita captive in Miami, where she has lived for 45 years in the smallest orca tank in the world. A battle was lost recently in federal court to return her to home waters off the Washington coast.

The removal of so many orcas contributed to the decline of the species in Puget Sound waters over the years, but far more subtle yet equally devastating conditions are decimating orca numbers today.

The three primary threats are lack of food, pollution and chemical contaminants, and vehicle traffic and noise. Regarding their food source, the orcas consume large amounts of chinook salmon, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has directed a task force to explore breaching four dams on the lower Snake River to return salmon runs to their historic numbers. According to Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, “there is no question the whales are starving ... and the dams are impacting them at a critical place and time.”

Three federal judges in five rulings since 1994 have called for an overhaul of hydropower operations by federal agencies at eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to boost salmon survival, including a serious look at dam removal. The key to orca survival is the return of chinook salmon numbers to the sound, and that will not happen until the four lower Snake River dams are breached. To date, there has been nothing but delay and obfuscation, and one has to be a cockeyed optimist to think the dams will be removed in time to save the orcas.

Orcas are not the only consumers of chinook. Somewhere on the list to save the orca must be tougher regulations on the amount of chinook that fishers can remove from Puget Sound waters.

While food may be the greatest threat to orca survival, noise from ocean-going vessels such as those gigantic freighters in Seattle ports interferes with their sophisticated communication systems critical to their hunts for food. Even pleasure boats and whale-watching boats add to the proliferation of noise and oil that compromise the daily lives of these creatures. It is not unreasonable to suggest licensing and increased regulation of whale-watching boats.

Finally, pollution is on the rise in Puget Sound, with PCB’s and other contaminants threatening the whales’ ability to fight disease. Cruise ships that are moored in Seattle may add to the Seattle skyline, but they dump their waste and contribute to the health risks of the orca.

There seems no end to the list of accomplices in the demise of the orca in Puget Sound, and the orcas themselves seem to be calling out to humankind for help. For 17 days last summer, an orca mom attracted worldwide attention as she carried her dead calf around the sound with members of her pod helping to keep its body afloat.

We must never give up hope that government agencies acting within the existing legal framework will come to the rescue of this pod of whales, but the odds are against them as they face powerful commercial interests that favor the status quo.

Instead, we must hope for a new day that recognizes and protects the nonhuman cognitive and emotional complexity of highly intelligent animals. The time has come for public officials to come to terms with nonhuman rights, and develop and apply a body of law that places the priority of animal survival over the economic and political powers that sentence animals to extinction.

When compared to the legal and political inertia that currently assigns orcas to a bleak future, this is radical thinking, but there are some advocates navigating new legal terrain for animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project is dedicated to litigation that seeks legal personhood and the fundamental right to the bodily liberty of great apes, elephants, dolphins and whales. The project calls itself the only civil rights organization in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for animals, and it may be the orcas last and best hope for protections that the current political and legal infrastructure fails to provide.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.