The city of Port Townsend, Washington, announced Monday that orcas living in the South have legal rights, marking the first time a U.S. city council has made such an acknowledgment.
“The rights of orcas living in the South include, but are not limited to, the right to life, autonomy, culture, free and safe passage, an adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional or mental harm. including habitat degraded by noise, pollution and contamination,” Mayor David J. Faber said during the council meeting, reading from a non-binding proclamation.
The release of the document represents the latest development in the “Nature Rights Movement,” which recognizes that nature and all of its constituent parts — including wild animals, mountains, forests and rivers — have rights similar to those of humans.
The Port Townsend resolution, supported by City Council and Mayor Faber, also recognized that existing legal protections for whales have proved inadequate.
Although orcas are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, the population of Southern Resident Orcas, also known as Salish Sea Orcas, has been declining. Only 73 remain in the wild, down from a peak of almost 100 whales in the mid-1990s. Scientists say southern resident orcas are threatened by ongoing pollution, noise from boat traffic, and a decline in Chinook salmon populations, the orcas’ main food source.
For Kriss Kevorkian, founder of Legal Rights for the Salish Sea, recognizing the rights of Southern orcas is a step towards recalibrating humanity’s relationship with nature and coming closer to the reality that humans are part of nature.
“We have a responsibility to protect the orcas that live in the south,” Kevorkian said. “We cannot let them die under our watch.”
Because southern resident orcas are so resonating with people in Washington and around the world, Kevorkian hopes the Port Townsend resolution will stimulate recognition of the rights of orcas and nature in general at the state level in Washington.
If the rights of orcas living in the south make it into legally binding law, it would give orcas a legal standing to defend their rights in court, which is usually through a custodial process in which individuals or organizations act on behalf of the orcas . Interest.
Southern resident killer whales, a unique and endangered killer whale population endemic to coastal Washington state and Vancouver, Canada, have cultural significance to many indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest. In 2018, one of the orcas, known as Tahlequah, attracted international media attention when she refused to leave her stillborn child behind and carried the calf through the water for 17 days. Flocks of orcas have unique cultural, social and physical characteristics and, like humans, are sentient beings, have individual personality traits and display affection, sadness and playfulness, scientists have found.
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Tahlequah’s story inspired Port Townsend residents and a coalition of local organizations to propose that the city recognize orcas as righteous creatures. Elizabeth Dunne, a Washington-based attorney with the Earth Law Center who worked on the campaign, said while the proclamation isn’t legally binding, it moves away from existing legal and economic systems that treat orcas as objects and property humans possess and can destroy .
“In this country, recognizing the rights of nature may seem like a bold move, but around the world it’s not,” Dunne said. “In other countries that already recognize these rights, it’s part of a redesign of their legal systems.”
Around the world, at least 39 countries and indigenous nations have court judgments or some form of legislation recognizing nature’s rights. In Ecuador, where the rights of Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, are constitutionally recognized, the laws have been used to block exploratory mining projects in fragile ecosystems and demand the restoration of a damaged river.
Researchers estimate that over 400 initiatives are in the works worldwide to advance the recognition of nature’s rights. Regardless, legal systems around the world, from New Zealand to the United Kingdom and Spain, have increasingly recognized that animals have the ability to experience feelings and sensations, including suffering.
In the United States, local communities across the country have legislated or otherwise taken steps to recognize nature’s legal rights. However, these laws have encountered obstacles that have prevented their enforcement due to state-level precedents that subordinate or pre-empt local government laws to state legislation.
A court in the US has yet to uphold a natural rights law.
While the movement for the rights of nature began with the passage of a local ordinance in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, in 2006, Dunne said that corporate influence on legislation has slowed the movement’s growth in the United States.
Proponents of the rights of nature often point out that most existing legal systems treat nature as property, while granting businesses many of the same legal rights as people, including the right to due process and freedom of expression. That imbalance is why certain sectors of the business community have defended the status quo and worked to block initiatives, including laws recognizing Lake Erie rights and waterway rights in Orlando, Fla., Dunne said.
“Companies that are involved in extractive industries feel threatened by the idea that nature has rights,” she said, “because it means companies need to take better account of their impact on the environment, as opposed to a system that enabling them to get permits to allow them to pollute.”