Rights for the Southern Resident Orcas Gains Momentum

By Michelle Bender, Rachel Bustamante and Kriss Kevorkian

The Southern Resident Orcas are a critically endangered subspecies of orca found primarily off the coasts of British Columbia and Washington in the Salish Sea. They have been at the center of a campaign led by Earth Law Center (ELC) and partner, Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (LRSS), to protect and recover their population by recognizing their inherent rights and the ecosystems on which they depend. The long-term goal is State level recognition of the population’s inherent rights and active steps towards implementation. The campaign was launched in 2018 as a response to their continued decline, despite federal legal protections for nearly two decades. The Southern Resident Orca (“the Orcas”) has only 73 individuals left in the wild. The original scope focused on the entire Salish Sea, but ELC and LRSS decided to pivot and focus on the Orcas as the stepping stone to a broader paradigm shift in Washington, because as the Orcas go, we go.

In 2019/2020, ELC worked on a draft State bill with various legal experts, and focused on education and awareness building. ELC and LRSS have been busy at work, including holding many workshops and roundtables to increase Rights of Nature education in the Pacific Northwest. ELC also created a toolkit which was distributed early in 2022 to provide advocates with the tools they need to support the campaign; including a template resolution, talking points, frequently asked questions and social media templates. You can take action and view the toolkit here. (We encourage viewing the template resolution as a guide while adding the unique views and values of your community. Please let us know when you’ve done this so we can include you in the campaign.)

(Jefferson County Commissioners alongside members of the North Olympic Orca Pod at the signing of the Jefferson County Proclamation)

In late 2022, our initiative started to receive significant support at the local level. It began when Port Townsend expressed interest after outreach from LRSS and ELC drafted an updated version of our template resolution in line with a Proclamation. Since December 2022, four cities (Port Townsend, Gig Harbor, Langley, Bainbridge) and two counties (Jefferson County and San Juan County) in Washington State have passed proclamations recognizing the inherent rights of the Orcas (you can view all the proclamations here), and the number continues to grow.  

More cities and counties are also considering proclamations and we will continue to update this blog as they come in! These local actions are creating the momentum needed to call for immediate state-level action to address the main threats to the Southern Resident Orcas’ survival. Local organizing and resolutions/proclamations have proven powerful tools to gain state and federal action in the United States, and we hope that 2024 will be the year for a state bill or comparable proclamation in Washington’s legislative session.

Who are the Southern Resident Orcas? 

The Southern Resident Orcas are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, meaning they play a critical role in sustaining the ecological health of the ecosystems they inhabit and are an important indicator of Ocean health. The primary threats to Orcas include a limited availability of their primary prey, chinook salmon, underwater noise and toxic contaminants polluting their habitats. They are highly social creatures that are culturally, spiritually, and economically important to the people of Washington State and the world. To explore more about the Southern Resident Orcas and their ecological importance, read more here

How can recognizing their rights help their dire situation?

Recognition of their inherent rights demonstrates that we value their population and acknowledge their ecological needs. For example, the Port Townsend proclamation states that the Orcas have inherent rights to: “life, autonomy, culture, free and safe passage, adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional, or mental harm, including a habitat degraded by noise, pollution, and contamination.” Recognizing the inherent rights of the Orcas is not only crucial for the protection and recovery of their population but also for respecting and upholding the cultural, spiritual, and economic importance of these creatures to the Indigenous communities who have lived in the region for millenia. 

Approximately 30 countries already have hundreds of Rights of Nature laws, with dozens at the local and tribal levels in the United States. For example Santa Monica’s Sustainability Rights Ordinance, the Nez Perce’s resolution recognizing the rights of the Snake River, and both San Francisco and Malibu have passed resolutions protecting the rights of whales and dolphins in their coastal waters.

Take action to help protect the Southern Resident Orcas and their ecosystems!

Overall, this campaign is making significant progress in advocating for safeguarding and recovering their declining population. The support of cities and counties in Washington demonstrate a growing recognition of the urgent need to protect this species and their habitat. However, more action is needed to ensure their long-term survival. 

To help protect the Southern Resident Orcas and their ecosystems, you can stay informed and engaged by following the progress of this ongoing campaign, learning more about these magnificent species, and advocating for stronger protections.