Turning Grief into Action

Last night was a tough one for me. Right at the end of a long day, the news broke that J35, Tahlequah, was still carrying her dead and decomposing calf for the 16th day in a row. I was upset and frustrated and felt hopeless.

J35, also know as Tahlequah, carrying her deceased calf (©Center For Whale Research)

Looking for wisdom, I read the first chapter of Silent Spring by one of my conservation heroes, Rachel Carson. In it, she describes a town slowly being affected by chemical poisoning. She described strange illnesses, animals dying, and farms failing. Carson writes, “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”

I worry one day we will say the same thing about the loss of orcas and salmon. I worry one day, sooner rather than later, the salmon won’t come back. A day when orca calls don’t echo through the Salish Sea. Where rivers remain dammed and the shores of Puget Sound are paved with concrete. These ecosystems are dying, and the orcas are trying to tell us that.

I think Governor Inslee’s task force is coming up with great recommendations, and I’m proud to be part of this process. But these are conversations we should have had decades ago. There has been no population growth for the last three years. Tahlequah is reminding us that we could soon be entering a fourth.

Not only is the population the lowest it’s been in decades, it is losing its ability to grow. The loss of one calf, especially a female calf, is the loss of generations to come.

I’m one of the youngest people involved with that task force and its working groups, so I’ll be around to see the outcomes of the actions we take today. I don’t want to look back at this moment as a missed opportunity. I hope that I will be able to remember this as a moment when we were on the precipice of failure, but we were able to muster the strength and courage to reverse course.

Robb testifying at Tuesday’s meeting of the task force (left) and an adult salmon in the Snake River (right)

At the end of the day, we have to act. We can’t avoid the tough decisions anymore. We don’t have time to wait or make incremental changes. These whales are going extinct. Inaction is not an option.

We must breach the dams. Dams block salmon passage and the four lower snake river dams restrict salmon populations from reaching some of the best spawning grounds in the country. We must spill more water over the dams that remain to help more young salmon from the rivers to the ocean. We must work in our communities and cities to control and limit urban growth and retrofit cities to better capture and treat stormwater runoff. We must protect and restore estuaries and riparian chinook salmon habitat. We must restrict noise interference in Washington’s waters, which includes opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline and export terminal and working with shipping and tour boat operators to limit noise pollution.

I truly hope that this task force will make bold and big recommendations, confronting difficult decisions rather than shying away from them. And I hope that those recommendations are implemented quickly and judiciously. The southern resident orcas cannot afford to wait any longer.

L72, photographed on Sept. 10, 2010, in Haro Strait, did the same thing with her dead newborn in a behavior biologists say is a common expression of grief by a mother unwilling to let go of its baby.

Carson’s warning rattled the nation. She painted a clear picture of the price of inaction. Fortunately, she inspired millions of Americans and our political leaders to confront the chemical industry and ban DDT. Difficult decisions were made, but bold action saved us, the bald eagle, and gave us control over our environment. That is what we need now. Tahlequah and her calf are a wake-up call for the entire country. Millions of mothers, fathers, children, and families are following this tragic story and Tahlequah’s “tour of grief.” Millions of people who had never heard of the southern resident orcas, much less of their plight. But now that they have, they have to speak up. They have to stand up and demand that this task force and the rest of our political leaders act, and act fast. Defenders of Wildlife has been working to protect the southern residents and restore the Salish Sea, and we have made progress reducing pollution and involving the community. But now the entire world is on board and not a moment too soon. Any further delay will cause us to lose these whales forever.

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