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Jefferson Co. first county to secure inherent rights of Southern Resident Orcas

Another excellent piece from LEGAL RIGHTS FOR THE SALISH SEA and the EARTH LAW CENTER published in the The Orcasonian, January 18th, 2023 ...

Jefferson County, WA — Jefferson County Commissioners signed a Proclamation describing Jefferson County’s support for action by local, state, federal and tribal governments that secure and effectuate the inherent rights of the Southern Resident Orcas. This Proclamation comes a month after the cities of Port Townsend, Gig Harbor and Langley made history by passing similar proclamations.

Members of the North Olympic Orca Pod and Jefferson County Commissioners Heidi Eisenhour, Kate Dean, Greg Brotherton

The Southern Resident Orcas (“the Orcas”) are culturally, spiritually, and economically important to the people of Washington State and the world. However, despite international, federal and state legal protections for nearly two decades, the population continues to decline and is critically endangered, with only 73 individuals left in the wild.

“If any population of animals on the planet warrant personhood it would be the Southern Resident Orcas. They are the most well studied population of animals on the planet. And over the past 50 years, we’ve come to see them as conscious individuals who are tightly bonded with their family members and clan. The Southern Resident Orcas co-evolved in the Pacific Northwest with the Chinook salmon that they rely on, and it’s our responsibility to respect them and the ecosystems that they rely on.” Dr. Debra Giles, Science and Research Director at the non-profit, Wild Orca.

Kriss Kevorkian, founder of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (LRSS), noted, “When I’ve asked decision makers to support our campaign to recognize the rights of the Southern Resident Orca, most of the responses have been positive. In fact, I’m often asked, “Why wouldn’t we support this?” People in Washington and around the world love the Southern Resident Orcas and want to make sure they survive and thrive.”

“Many years ago, when my son and daughter were young children, we visited SeaWorld in San Diego and were especially excited to watch the Orca show. All of us were thrilled when we got splashed while watching the Orcas dive and jump and race around the pool with a trainer riding on their backs. Now I cringe while wishing that we had known then what we know now. Over the ensuing years we have learned much about Orcas and the peril the resident Orcas are in. Recognizing and respecting the “Rights of Orcas” is an essential part of understanding Orcas and advocating for them. Knowing that Orcas have rights brings them “closer” to us.” Patrick Johnson, Co-Chair Green Sanctuary and Environmental Action Team, Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

“A Native elder once said, ‘My relatives, the orca, only eat Chinook. I don’t need it, so I leave it for them.’ We can all do something. We can choose to change our behavior in order to save the Southern Residents.” Kathleen Waldron, Citizen Scientist, Jefferson County.

Legal rights for species and their habitats is not new. Indigenous understandings of our kinship with other beings has existed since time immemorial. Hundreds of Rights of Nature laws exist in approximately 30 countries, with dozens at the local and tribal levels in the United States, including Santa Monica’s Sustainability Rights Ordinance and the Nez Perce’s resolution recognizing the rights of the Snake River. Both San Francisco and Malibu passed resolutions in 2014 protecting the rights of whales and dolphins in their coastal waters.

Image explanation: Rather than Nature, the economy and humankind functioning separately, the Rights of Nature framework recognizes that all are dependent and exist within one another. The economy cannot exist separately from society, and society cannot exist separately from Nature. Image Credit: Carducci M, et. al.

(2020) Towards an EU Charter of the Fundamental Rights of Nature. Study, Brussels: European Economic and Social Committee; Nature’s Rights Europe.

This effort is also supported by an online petition and declaration of understanding, of which over 10 organizations have signed onto. Earth Law Center created a toolkit to help advocates introduce a resolution to their local communities, share the campaign on social media and other helpful talking points. You can take action and view the toolkit here.

Additional Quotes:

“Our Lhaq’temish term for killer whales is qwe’lhol’mechen, meaning “our relations under the waves.” They are members of our family, and we have a sacred obligation to help heal and protect them. Recognizing our relations’ inherent rights is critical to this work. We are guided by ancestors and our culture, and we appreciate these Proclamations that bring us all together in our shared responsibility to our whale relatives and also to our own future generations.” says Squil-le-he-le, Raynell Morris, Lhaq’temish matriarch and Lummi Nation tribal member.

“Orcas are invaluable assets as keystone species to the ocean. They provide rich biodiversity to the environment with their presence bringing positive contributions to the natural cycle of the ocean. Granting orcas legal rights will assure the oceanic environment remains as pure as intended.” – Pooja Sharma, Director of Legal Advocacy and Policy at Keystone Species Alliance.

“Environmental laws should mean protecting the environment through compromise; compromise for an equitable and healthy future for all of Nature, of which we are a part of. Recognizing inherent rights does not automatically mean no whale watching or fishing, but it does mean a hard look and re-evaluation of human activity and the way we do business. We can either continue business as usual and entire ecosystems will collapse, leaving us without the industries we cherish anyway, or reduce our impact and proactively restore ecosystems now to ensure such industries that contribute to our livelihood still exist 30, 50 and 100 years from now.” – Michelle Bender, Ocean Campaigns Director at Earth Law Center.

“Recognizing the Southern Residents’ legal rights means that we must consider their wellbeing and needs in addition to human interests in decision making, and that they will have a voice in a variety of forums, including courts. One way that could be done is through human guardians acting on their behalf and in their best interests,,” explained Elizabeth Dunne, ELC’s Director of Legal Advocacy. “When structures such as the lower Snake River dams interfere with the Southern Residents’ ability to obtain prey (salmon) crucial for their survival, then to realize their rights we must find solutions to remedy the problem,” said Dunne.

Debra Ellers, co-founder of the local orca advocacy group North Olympic Orca Pod, said: “We commend the Jefferson County Commissioners for recognizing the inherent rights of our critically-imperiled Southern Resident Orcas to thrive.”

Earth Law Center (ELC) ( works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. ELC partners with frontline indigenous people, communities and organizations to challenge the overarching legal and economic systems that reward environmental harm, and advance governance systems that maximize social and ecological well-being.

Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (LRSS- is a local community group based in Gig Harbor, WA, founded by Dr. Kriss Kevorkian, educating people to recognize the inherent rights of the Southern Resident Orcas. Under our current legal system humans and corporations have legal standing but animals and ecosystems don’t. We believe that animals and ecosystems should also have legal rights, not just protections that can be changed by different administrations.

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