A pod of three bottlenose dolphins breach the water’s surface in San Francisco Bay near the Richmond San Rafael Bridge in January 2019. (Courtesy Bill Keener/The Marine Mammal Center)

A pod of three bottlenose dolphins breach the water’s surface in San Francisco Bay near the Richmond San Rafael Bridge in January 2019. (Courtesy Bill Keener/The Marine Mammal Center)

SF’s increasing porpoises, whales demonstrate how protections pay off

City should use lessons to address other environmental challenges

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Bill Keener spends a lot of time looking over the Golden Gate Bridge. But don’t worry. He’s there to see porpoises, dolphins and whales that congregate in the area to feed and breed. In the last 15 years, the San Francisco Bay has seen a boom in populations of marine mammals.

“I never thought we’d see cetaceans in the Bay but here they are,” Keener, a cetacean field research associate at The Marine Mammal Center who has served in multiple capacities at the Center since the 1970s, told me. “There have been so many changes in my lifetime.”

Although some of these species have a long history in San Francisco, numbers dropped so significantly during the 20th century many feared extinction. (Remember “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home?”) Pollution, fill, noise and boat traffic increased. A net under the Golden Gate Bridge from 1941-45 blocked submarines, torpedoes and wildlife movement. And the Richmond Whaling Station, which operated until 1972, hunted nearby Humpback, blue, fin and sperm whales.

San Francisco’s increase in marine mammals is more than a rare piece of good environmental news — it’s evidence that awareness, advocacy and strong regulations pay off. The City should build on these lessons to address other environmental challenges, such as kicking fossil fuels. A planet that’s cleaner, quieter and more filled with the plants and animals we love is possible.

Few may remember that the San Francisco Bay was home to the last remnant of the once profitable and powerful whaling industry. The Richmond Whaling Station, where “humpies” and other leviathans were butchered for dog food, no longer exists. Former President Richard Nixon established legal protections for certain marine mammals and the station was then ordered closed.

These laws and policies were the result of a “sea change” in public awareness and advocacy. After centuries of relying on whales for various uses, such as lighting, industrial lubrication, fashion and food, the tide turned.

“There was a lot going on,” Mark Palmer, the associate director of the International Marine Mammal Protection Team who advocated for the closing of the whaling station, told me. “‘The Songs of the Humpback Whale’ had a huge impact. I’m sure the Jacques Cousteau television series helped a lot, too — I remember enjoying it as a kid in the 1960s.”

Of course, it wasn’t good news to everyone when the whaling station closed. Those who depended on the business had to find new employment. Pratt Peterson, who worked at the Richmond station as a gunner, recalled finding a new job quickly, in a UC Berkeley oral history account.

Ultimately, the economy weathered the whaling industry’s end. Today, California’s coastline supports 654,000 tourism, recreation and fishing jobs and $54.3 billion in gross domestic products, according to an analysis released today by the nonprofit Oceana.

But marine life and the sustainable economy it supports continue to face risks. The federal government is currently researching the high number of Gray whale deaths along the West Coast. Necropsies have identified malnutrition, entanglement and trauma from ship strikes as common causes of death. Efforts to slow and limit ship traffic in the Bay could help.

It’s also critical to halt offshore drilling for fossil fuels, which have replaced many of the same demands whales used to fill. According to Oceana’s analysis, protecting federal waters from new oil development can prevent over $720 billion in damages to people, property and the environment.

Unfortunately, the state’s efforts to prevent offshore drilling are at risk by the recall.

“California has a moratorium on offshore drilling and has prevented onshore infrastructure to support drilling in federal waters,” Michael Stocker of Ocean Conservation Research told me. “This could change with a new governor.”

San Franciscans should vote, advocate and push for stronger environmental protections. But simply joining Keener to look for porpoises, dolphins and whales is helpful, too. The more we learn and love our planet, the greater its chance to remain livable for future generations of marine mammals, as well as us.

“You want to protect the things you’re passionate about,” Keener told me. “You want to see them do well.”

The Marine Mammal Center encourages people to report sightings on its website.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

Bay Area NewsenvironmentWhalesWildlife

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