An Evolutionary Process

Orcas, or killer whales, were once considered a threat to the commercial salmon industry. ( Whales.org )

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

Resource management has never been part of American exceptionalism — except perhaps in the jaw-dropping extent of how past generations squandered the natural wealth that existed for millennia in pre-Columbian history.

Whether it was the slashing-and-burning of native forests to grow cotton and tobacco, the near-extermination of the once-mighty bison herds or the relentless whaling and fishing that decimated marine mammal populations and the fishery stocks on which they depended, it’s fair to say that exploitation, rather than stewardship, is how this country’s natural resources have been “utilized.”

For example: Back in the early 1970s, I was working on a reforestation crew. Our job was to trudge through the overgrown brush and around the stumps in logged-off areas planting tree seedlings. Where the units had been logged off some years ago, it wasn’t unusual to have to scramble over Douglas fir logs that were six or even eight feet in diameter.

The trees had been felled, the branches sawn off and the logs bucked into 16- or 18-foot lengths … and there they were lying on the forest floor, often still mostly intact even after a decade or two of molding away in the relentless rain that created the Northwest’s towering forests.

I remember asking the Forest Service inspector on one such site, why did all those logs get left behind? He replied nonchalantly, “Oh, they probably had checks (cracks) or pitch rings, so they weren’t worth hauling out.”

That was my introduction to a mindset, so prevalent in the past, that now seems unfathomable: That people would consider America’s natural resources to be so abundant as to be virtually unlimited. That there was no need to consider conservation or worry about judicious management. That harvesting, extraction or exploitation, no matter how egregious, wasn’t an issue, because our resources couldn’t possibly be depleted.

Until they were.

Whale of a tale

Which brings us to the present.

People’s perceptions about natural resources specifically, and the larger ecosystem in general, have evolved significantly in the last 40 years, largely as a consequence of how ruthlessly we’ve exploited both over the centuries. That evolution has impacted how we regard wildlife and thus the relationship of people to the entire animal kingdom.

There’s no better example of that process than the orcas, the killer whales that once were the stars of dozens of theme parks and entertainment venues.

In the 1950s, orcas were considered a threat to the Pacific salmon fishery, according to a new book titled, “Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator,” by marine researcher Jason Colby. They were killed by the thousands, including hundreds captured and slaughtered by scientists with the National Oceanic Atmospheric, ostensibly to study their stomach contents.

During the 1960s, orcas were routinely harpooned, dragged into pens and towed to marine parks in Washington state. Colby’s book details how a 22-foot male orca was caught by a fisherman in Namu, British Columbia, in 1965. Ted Griffin, then the owner of the now-defunct Seattle Marine Aquarium, purchased the whale for $8,000 and arranged for him to be towed in a pen to the Seattle waterfront.

According to news stories at the time, thousands lined up along the Deception Pass Bridge on the Washington coast to watch Namu, as the whale was named, pass by, surrounded by an escort of Coast Guard and police boats. The mayor of the coastal city of Everett paid Griffin $10,000 for Namu to be dragged through the city’s waterfront for crowds to witness.

Just one year later, Namu died from an infection, the first of dozens of captive orcas unable to survive captivity in tiny — for them — concrete tanks.

How much have things changed since then? If such a capture and confinement were even discussed today, there would be loud and angry public outrage. Likewise, the idea that orcas are intelligent creatures with similarities to humans has not only become ingrained among Americans, it’s one of the pillars of the animal rights movement.

But here’s another link to animal agriculture that rarely gets discussed.

As Colby noted in an interview in The Herald newspaper, saving the orcas begins at the grocery store, because salmon, the so-called “healthier protein” touted by virtually every anti-meat-eating nutritionist, is an orca’s principal source of food.

“We talk about Southern Residents [orcas] starving, [yet] I can still go to the supermarket and find locally caught chinook salmon,” Colby said. “Over a million chinook salmon are caught commercially each year. It’s politically difficult to restrict fishing because fishermen vote.

“Killer whales don’t vote.”

The rest of us can vote, however, and not only at the ballot box but through our purchasing choices at the supermarket.

More meat, less fish. Good for us; essential for the whales.

 
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