New Orca calf highlights urgent need to focus recovery efforts on supporting the Southern Resident Orcas right to life

Center for Whale Research

Center for Whale Research

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 23rd, 2019


Michelle Bender (

Elizabeth Dunne (

Julia Nicholls ( 

Seattle, WA (January 23, 2019)— A coalition of groups (ngo’s, community groups, scientists, lawyers and indigenous peoples) unveiled today their Declaration on the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas,  to urge all levels of government to recognize the inherent rights of the Southern Residents and the ecosystems upon which they depend in law. This recognition has renewed urgency with a new calf born to the Southern Residents who have not produced a surviving offspring in three years.

The time is now to recognize the Southern Residents inherent rights

“Recovery efforts will be futile if we do not address the root cause of why the Southern Residents have declined- our current economic and legal systems.” Michelle Bender, Ocean Rights Manager, Earth Law Center. “That is what a law recognizing the Southern Residents rights and our responsibility to respect them will do.” We cannot continue with band aid solutions, allow economics and politics to trump life, and expect the Southern Residents to recover.” 

“We’d be having very different conversations if we approached recovery with the Orca’s best interests in mind,” said Elizabeth M. Dunne, Esq., who helped draft and presented People’s Recommendation 74 which the people delivered to Governor Inslee’s office during a rally last November. Recommendation 74 recognizes the Southern Residents’ right to life, including to their naturally occurring food source of Chinook salmon from the lower Snake River.

Dunne explained “the Orca shows us how our current laws are not remedying the severe decline of entire ecosystems – from the Salish Sea to the Columbia River basin and Snake River watershed. We must adopt a framework recognizing that ecosystems have the rights -- such as to exist, flourish, evolve, to sustain life, and to be restored to a healthy state – if we truly want to save the Orca, and ultimately ourselves, from extinction.”

Over 20 countries now recognize the Rights of Nature (species and ecosystems) in law and/or through judicial decisions. Both San Francisco and Malibu passed resolutions in 2014 on the rights of whales and dolphins, and Toledoans for Safe Water are advancing a Lake Erie Bill of Rights that will appear on the ballot in February 2019.

Expert and international support for the Declaration

Some look to recent policy moves such as a recommendation by Governor Inslee’s Orca Task Force to place a moratorium on whale watching, and the passage of a federal law allowing lethal removal of salmon eating sea lions along the Columbia River, to help the Southern Resident Orcas recover. But many agree these solutions are not enough.

Ken Balcomb, who has spent over forty years living with the whales and studying them in intimate detail warned that the Task Force’s recommendations “will not . . . avert the biological extinction of the Southern Residents.” Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, also supports the Declaration because he sees recognizing the Southern Residents’ inherent rights as “essential to the orca’s survival and well-being.”

Most scientists agree that a key to the Southern Resident Orcas’ survival lies in breaching the four lower Snake River dams. “Yet, politics keep getting in the way. Environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), are used to call for more studies (already done over 16 years ago) at a cost of $33 million and to excuse immediate action on dam breaching.” Jim Waddell, US Army Corps Civil Engineer (Retired), and founder of Dam Sense.

Regulatory environmental laws in Canada have similarly failed the Orcas. The Canadian government refused an emergency order to protect the Orcas, and plans for the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline and subsequent increased tanker traffic further threatens the Orcas’ survival. “The Orcas know no borders, so neither do our efforts” says Julia Nicholls, Save Our Whales, “we cannot hope to save the Orcas without working together.”

The coalition is calling upon all to act now by signing on in support of the Declaration and committing to concrete actions that will advance the Orca’s rights, such as the passage of local laws that secure rights of the Orca and ecosystems upon which they depend, and contain specific, enforceable, actions to advance those rights.

Earth Law Center ( works to transform the law to recognize and protect nature’s inherent rights to exist, thrive and evolve. Michelle Bender has specialized in marine mammal protection and rights of nature for 4 years, assisting with critical lawsuits, such as those against importation of marine mammals for captive display.

Legal Rights for the Salish Sea (LRSS- is a local community group based in Gig Harbor, WA, founded by Dr. Kriss Kevorkian, working to bring legal rights of nature to the Southern Resident Orcas including the Salish Sea to protect her inhabitants and ecosystems.

Elizabeth M. Dunne, Esq. graduated from Emory Law School in 2000. She has worked for non-profits, law firms, and federal judges, and for the past several years has managed her own visionary law practice focused on advancing and defending the rights of local communities and ecosystems. Her collaborators include Dam Sense and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund ( Community and Legal Environmental Legal Defense Fund is building a movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature to advance democratic, economic, social, and environmental rights – building upward from the grassroots to the state, federal, and international level.

Ken Balcomb, founder and Senior Scientist at the Center for Whale Research ( and also a member of Governor Inslee’s Orca Task Force is credited as being the leading cause of orca conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest and a pioneer in photo-identification of cetaceans.

Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network, served as next friend for captive orca in a federal lawsuit against SeaWorld. The case asserted that SeaWorld was holding the whales in violation of the slavery and involuntary servitude provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court dismissed the case finding that the Thirteenth Amendment applied only to humans.

Jim Waddell, founder of, a resource website, with content provided by scientists, engineers, attorneys, and former US Army Corps of Engineers employees, provides a wealth of information on prior and current studies on breaching the lower Snake River dams, including how to mitigate economic impacts on Eastern Washington for far less than the cost of more studies.

Save Our Whales (SOS) is a group of Pender Island, British Columbia activists mobilizing against threats to the Southern Resident Orcas.  They work closely with the Pender Ocean Defenders. Pender Ocean Defenders (POD is another coalition member), founded by Monica Petrie is a group of Gulf Islands, BC residents and other Canadians who advocate for the right to a clean and healthy environment for all who live in and surrounding the Salish Sea - specifically the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.