Janet Thomas: The Science of Exploitation Featured

On my morning beach walks, I bliss out in one direction and pick up plastic in the other. Either, Or and Holy Both. (Or “Wholly Both” if C.S. Lewis is to be quoted precisely.) The Either/Or of it all is having its way with me these days and it is not a pretty sight. Most recently it’s with the WA State Legislative process as they decide to act on behalf of whale-watching industry over the Southern Resident orcas.

In effect, the Legislature is ignoring the results of nine months of hard work by the SRKW Task Force. And all their recommendations were supported by Governor Inslee. The Legislature is also turning a deaf ear to his personal plea: "Now is the time to act to save these magnificent creatures. If we ignore our duty to save them, we will lose a piece of our hearts and of Washington's cultural identity. As the orca goes, so go we."

My “Wholly Both” morning walks are verging on “Wholly Catastrophe” as I try to find some equilibrium about it all.

Thankfully, there are morning-walk surprises along the shore. One of them is meeting a fellow who knows all about marine biology (he has a PhD in the topic). Much to my astonishment, he is a young scientist who believes in compassionate science. He spoke about taking a group of his students out to do research, when suddenly, in the midst of dredging the sea floor for observation purposes, he realized it was indiscriminate suffering and destruction that was being promulgated and he abruptly stopped the practice.

In subsequent discussions, he informed me about how scientists are thoroughly trained away from compassion because of its influence on the objectivity of it all. None of which changed his mind about how he would conduct his research in the future. He now has a private professional protocol that embraces compassion. He is part of the younger generations that are now having to deal with the destructive dispassionate protocols of their elders. My beach friend does so privately. Hopefully, as his generation takes over and speaks up, compassion will become a publicly recognized foundation of scientific research.

This week I read an article in the March 2019 issue of Scientific American, titled “The Orca’s Sorrow” by Barbara J. King. It chronicles the grief journey of “Tahlequah” and the loss of her calf. It begins: “Last July a female orca named J35 captured worldwide attention for her unprecedented vigil. J35, also known as Tahlequah, is a member of the closely monitored Southern Resident population of orcas in the Salish Sea, off the coast of Washington State and British Columbia. She had just given birth, following a nearly year-and-a-half-long gestation period. It was her second offspring, a daughter, and the first live birth in the declining Southern Resident community in three years. But 30 minutes after birth, the calf died.”

And here is the moment that caught my attention: How do we know the calf died within 30 minutes? How do we know that it wasn’t this invasive observation process that contributed to the calf’s death? How do we know that it wasn’t noise and disturbance from an intrusive boat that interfered with the echo-location ability of this mother and calf to communicate and connect at birth—the most critical and vulnerable time of all? How do we know that J35’s seventeen days of grieving attachment to her calf was not a grief-stricken display of, “Look what you have done”?

There is a common thread throughout all the issues threatening the existence of the Southern Resident orca whales—human hubris. And it is ugly. It puts pride and profit first—no matter what the cost. How much good has all the research really done for the SRKWs? How much do they gain from being labeled? From having their lives intruded upon and examined non-stop—all for the sake of science? How has this benefited their lives? It is all-too evident that it hasn’t.

Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, and his whale-watching industry partners are all “serving” the Southern Residents in one direction and lining their pockets in the other. https://sanjuanislander.com/news-articles/environment-science-whales/whales-2/27997/follow-the-money If they were truly acting on behalf of the SRKWs they would be the first to stop exploiting them through everything from invasive tourism to self-serving photo-ops to self-serving science. If the whale-watching industry and the Center for Whale Research truly cared about the SRKWs, they would stop touting themselves as educators and saviors and get out of their way. They would be in Olympia advocating unconditionally for the survival of the SRKWs, not for their own profit.

At the very last Task Force meeting in November, a “moratorium” and “suspension” of SRKW whale-watching for 3-5 years was presented. All but two of the approximately 50 people around the table voted in approval. And off it went to the Legislature, where, after lobbying efforts by the whale-watching industry, these two words were removed from the language of the bills. As a result, the possibility of effective and informed public reaction and action was removed too.

Instead of a moratorium on Southern Resident whale-watching, the industry is now asked to stay 650-yard s away from them until 2023. This will be as ineffective as the current regulations have been. Just ask anyone who has witnessed the whale-watching industry in operation over the years.

The Legislature’s capitulation to the corporate lobbying of the whale-watching industry reflects the very sickness of these times: profit before everything, including life itself.

Please, before it is too late, let us pay attention to the compassionate-science ideals of the younger generations that are facing not only the environmental fallout from ongoing human greed but the very survival of their children and their children’s children. Learning from them, and acting accordingly, is the least we can do.

As Governor Inslee says, “As the orca goes, so go we."


Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."

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