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Port Townsend recognizes legal rights of southern resident orcas

Orca Habitat
NOAA Fisheries and Vancouver Aquarium
FILE - This September 2015, photo provided by NOAA Fisheries shows an aerial view of adult female Southern Resident killer whale (J16) swimming with her calf (J50).

A growing legal movement seeks to recognize the rights of nature. Activists in the Northwest are celebrating a first here: the city of Port Townsend, Washington, this week recognized the inherent rights of southern resident orcas.

The City’s mayor signed a proclamation Monday night, urging action by local, state, federal and tribal governments to protect those rights – and the ecosystems on which they depend.

Whereas the Southern Resident Orcas are culturally, spiritually and economically important to the people of Washington State and the world…” the declaration begins.

It states that despite legal protection for nearly 20 years, the population continues to decline. The species is critically endangered, with only 73 individuals left in the wild. And it says their rights:

“include, but are not limited to, the right 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…”

Kriss Kevorkian is one of the activists who worked to make it happen, together with the Earth Law Center. She’s the founder of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea and has been working to establish rights of nature in Washington for six years. She said the Port Townsend proclamation is “historic” – even though she admitted it’s more about shifting consciousness than anything else, for now.

“It's recognizing that we all have inherent rights to thrive and that we are all connected," Kevorkian said.

"It's not new. This has been around forever and we're just following. We're finally catching up to indigenous and native wisdom...It's like this wakeup call that people are finally catching on. Oh, yeah. We definitely need to start respecting nature.”  

The hope is that more cities and counties and eventually the state will adopt similar legislation. Ultimately, if more governments recognize the rights of orcas, that could lead to policy changes, Kevorkian said. These might include dam removal on the Lower Snake river, to provide more of the salmon that endangered orcas need to survive.

Updated: December 14, 2022 at 5:24 PM PST
A second city in Washington is recognizing the inherent rights of southern resident orcas.

The mayor of Gig Harbor signed a proclamation outlining the city's support for action by federal, state, tribal and local governments to protect those rights.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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