PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County is the latest local government to declare inherent rights for the region’s Southern Resident orca population, making it the first county in the state to issue such a proclamation.
Three Puget Sound cities issued similar declarations in December — Port Townsend was the first —all of which recognize inherent rights for the orcas, including the right to life, autonomy and free and safe passage.
Speaking at the Jefferson County commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, Port Townsend resident Deborah Ellers said the cities’ proclamations are causing people to think about the health of the orcas.
“This is spurring people to think how can we live our daily lives as orca-centric people in this community,” Ellers said.
Ellers is a member of the environmental activist group North Olympic Orca Pod, and she and her fellow group members were at Tuesday’s meeting dressed in orca costumes.
Each represented an individual orca.
“I represent L25 Ocean Sun. She was born around 1930 and she witnessed what the salmon runs were like,” Ellers said. “It’s her that spurs me on to try to restore the Northwest ecosystem.”
The recent declarations are the result of work by local activists, including Gig Harbor-based Kriss Kevorkian, founder of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea, who’s been reaching out to local governments about the proclamations.
In an email Tuesday, Kevorkian said she planned a meeting with representatives in Pierce County and that San Juan County was also considering a proclamation.
The proclamations are largely symbolic, but advocates say they send a message about what the public values. They hope to affect change at a higher level.
“One of our major initiatives is breaching the Lower Snake River dams, which is the single biggest thing we could do to restore millions of salmon into our Northwest ecosystem,” Ellers told commissioners.
Commissioners unanimously supported the proclamation, saying it reflected the county’s values.
District 3 Commissioner Greg Brotherton called the proclamation “a harbinger for the future.”
District 1 Commissioner Kate Dean said she had been moved by the 2018 images of the orca J35, “Tahlequah,” who gained international attention for carrying the body of her dead calf with her for 17 days.
“I had such a strong feeling of, we cannot, on our watch, let this species go extinct,” Dean said at the meeting. “And we know that we are at the critical point right now.”
The proclamations are part of a growing legal movement known as Rights of Nature, which argues that the natural world, plants, animals, even entire ecosystems, have legal rights akin to those of people.
Dean said she had previously worked on orca and salmon issues in her capacity as county commissioner which had caused tension with county officials elsewhere in the state.
“It’s been a really hard position to take with some of my county colleagues,” Dean said.
District 2 Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour said she grew up in a salmon fishing family and supported breaching the Lower Snake River Dams.
Environmental advocates have called for the removal of hydroelectric dams throughout the Columbia River Basin to aid the salmon and steelhead trout populations. Those in favor of keeping the dams point out that they are part of the Bonneville Power Administration, which provides electricity to communities in eight states.
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.