Whales are a reminder of why ecosystems matter | Editorial

The luckiest among us were on Vashon’s eastern shores Friday afternoon, witnessing a parade of killer whales cavorting and breaching as they made their way south past the Island.

All of us, however, are blessed to live in such a place.

And in case anyone needed a reminder, it is because of these majestic creatures that we’re working to restore Puget Sound.

So much of environmental protection is cast in negatives or stated as behaviors we need to alter. Don’t use pesticides. Drive less. Remove that bulkhead. Change the way you live.

But what those who are working to protect places like Puget Sound are really trying to do is preserve a planet where killer whales can thrive.

And, of course, while killer whales are the charismatic mega-fauna, the brightest stars in the constellation of Puget Sound’s marine world, they’re supported by a host of lesser-known critters that aren’t so glamorous but are just as critical. Sand lance, surf smelt, herring, salmon. And then there’s the habitat — eelgrass beds, for instance — and the ecological functions that help to maintain that ecosystem. Think erosion. Tidal action. Water quality.

The hard work of conservation comes in understanding these connections and working to preserve all the parts, not just the ones that make us rush to the shoreline, cameras in hand and children in tow. Indeed, orcas would not persist were it not for these various pieces in place, a complex web of physical and biological wonders.

The three pods that make up Puget Sound’s Southern Resident population are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, a legislative mandate often under threat in Congress. But even with this protection, many fear they’re struggling. Their numbers have fallen more than half since their historic highs of up to 200; their three pods — J, K and L — now number 88.

Earlier this year, and over the objections of some in the whale-watching industry, the federal government issued new rules for the region, doubling the distance boaters must maintain from these protected marine mammals. Under the rules, all recreational vehicles, from whale-watching boats to kayaks, have to stay at least 200 yards from the animals, instead of 100 yards.

Again, this is a negative — a rule limiting behavior. But as those standing on the shore on Friday surely realized, the goal is a lofty one.

As we enter the season when whales visit our region more frequently, Islanders are encouraged to report sightings to the Vashon Hydrophone Project, a whale research and conservation effort based on Vashon. Call the project at 463-9041. And when making a sighting report, the following information is helpful: date, time, location, description of the animals — such as color, markings or size — the number of animals, travel direction and speed.


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