Tell Us A Story – Fred Felleman

Tell Us A Story – Fred Felleman
Posted by Mike Sato on Apr 1, 2011 in Voices | Comments Off

An interview by Bonnie Loshbaugh: In mid December, I met with Fred Felleman at his North Ballard home. He had been up since the early hours of the morning after one a neighbor’s house caught fire, but his calendar was too tightly packed for us to reschedule. We spent an hour talking; here’s part of our conversation:

Fred Felleman: My name is Fred Felleman. I did my graduate degree at the University of Washington, College of Ocean and Fisheries Sciences, finished that in ’86 and been living here since. I originally came as a junior from Michigan. I remember getting off the bus in the summer, and I see this snow all over the ground. It was Mt. St. Helens ash. So I always thought that that foreshadowed the volcanic nature of my arrival. I’ve been here shaking things up, ever since.

Bonnie: When you think back over the last thirty years in Puget Sound, what changes have you seen?

F: There’s been a whole bunch of density increases. Living in the north end of Ballard – this place has gone from a sleepy little fishing town to a major sort of urban hub. There are some pluses and minuses to that. It’s become somewhat more fun, but at the same time, it’s definitely harder to park and there’s obviously a lot less green space around, but I’ve worked to try to preserve some of that. I was involved with getting the shoreline park improvement funds to renovate the Golden Gardens Bathhouse and to restore the beaches down there when they wanted to expand the West Point sewage treatment plant.

After graduate school, I wrote two proposals, one for a sanctuary in the San Juan Islands and the other off of the Olympic Coast National Park. The Olympic Coast Sanctuary was not formally created until 1994 but the law passed in 89. The one in the San Juan Islands had to go through a local approval process. That’s what led to the creation of the Northwest Straits Commission and the San Juan County MRCs.

That was what got me going from being a whale researcher to a marine environmentalist. I think anybody who studies whales sort of knows about it’s not just the biology, but a federally protected species. What really became obvious to me, bouncing around in little boats with big whales was, in the San Juan Islands, there were always these huge ships going by behind me. I was wondering, what’s that stuff coming out of the vessels, ballast water or sewage or whatever.

The addressing of shipping safety became sort of my calling. That’s the primary way people interact with the marine environment. Most people, the way we walk on water is by having a boat. [Washington] is often referred to as the most trade dependent state in the nation. The fact of the matter is, ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried out on vessels. I figured a lot of people are dealing with things related to trade but not the vehicle of trade. I saw an open niche of the environmental movement and I took that on.

In the Northwest most environmental organizations, I affectionately say, have their head up in the trees. There’s a small portion of the environmental community that does marine stuff, People For Puget Sound being probably the biggest. I have appreciated being able to work with People For Puget Sound on several projects, like the tug in Neah Bay. That was one of the more beneficial collaborations we did with the People.
I’ve always been an environmental consultant so I’ve had affiliations with the Ocean Conservancy,  American Oceans Campaign, Ocean Advocates, and Blue Water Network Group, which was acquired by Friends of the Earth. I also have the Makah Tribe as a client, who I’ve worked with since the Olympic Coast Sanctuary days. The Neah Bay tug is in their backyard.

I basically say to organizations, ‘this is what I do, do you want to do this, because I’m not interested in chasing after anybody else’s ideas.’ Most people don’t see ships as a primary issue, but just one [cruise] ship idling at the dock can generate twenty thousand automobiles, the same amounts of pollution.

B: You said you came here for grad school to study orcas. Could you talk about that?

F: It’s funny, I grew up in New York and my wife grew up in Manhattan. Our parents say “what happened to our kids? Where did they come up with this whale stuff in New York?” I think I have two folks to blame. One in Jacques Cousteau, and the other is Flipper.

I grew up on Long Island, so I was near the beach. I was always an aquatic personality, and I’m also a Pisces, if you want to blame it on that. Being near the water was always something I knew was important.

I went to grad school in Ann Arbor, and was involved with evolutionary biology. All life evolves in the sea. Some of them creep up, run around, evolve on land, and then some of the mammals become beach combers, and start finding food [in water] a little better than on the land. Over time, you go from a hippopotamus on to a whale. Whales have five fingers in their flippers and leg bones in their bodies. They have this heritage of a terrestrial mammal in the sea, but at the time nobody knew anything about the social behavior or any of the basic life history. I knew if I [studied] the killer whale, I could learn something that nobody knew, because nobody knew anything.

The killer whale was obviously the most study-able of the whales because you could tell the boys from the girls from the dorsal fin. There’s no other whale that does that for you – six foot angular versus three foot curved. Then we already had several years of this photo id study that allowed us to individually identify them. So we had the ability to identify individuals and the sexes of the individuals.

This population was already the best studied population of the whales in the world. I showed up here in 80 and called the University of Washington. I said, I know you have whales in your back yard. They go, oh, you have to talk to Friday Harbor Labs. I talked to the guys up at the Friday Harbor Labs, they go, no,  you gotta talk to the guys at The Whale Museum. Ken Balcomb was the head of that. I said, Ken, look, I know everything that’s in the literature on the whale, haven’t seen one yet. I’ll take your one week course on the whales, and hang out but I have to decide what to do my graduate work on.

I bicycled up Whidbey Island to show up in the San Juan Island. I roll into town, and Ken was having this huge barbecue and people were gathered around, and this gorgeous sunset was going down, and then all of sudden we hear in the distance “Pfoo! Pfoo! Pfoo!”

They go, “well, Fred, here’s your chance!” We go down on the beach, and they launch me in a kayak. So the first time I was ever in a kayak, the first time I was ever with a whale, I was doing both for the first time. Within an hour of arriving on the island, I’m saying, okay, I’m never leaving. This is about as good as it gets. After having the privilege of spending as many hours as I have with these whales, I decided to dedicate myself to do whatever I can to give something back.

B: Do you have a favorite place in Puget Sound?

F: The west side of San Juan Island. That’s for sure. As far as I’m concerned that’s my Shangri La.

B: I have a more open ended question for you. What does Puget Sound mean to you?

F: It is the reason I live here. I have the luxury of being able to choose wherever the hell I want to be, and there wouldn’t be a reason for me to be here if there wasn’t a resident population of killer whales that call Puget Sound home. For me, it is absolutely the thing that gets me up in the morning.

B: We’re thinking not only about the last twenty years in Puget Sound, but the future. What do you see for the next twenty years?

F: I wish I could be more optimistic. I’m convinced that there are things we can do to make things better and I’m not in a defeatist position, but there are some real challenges. We still have all these PCBs and the killer whales… you know, initially I [wanted] to look at the most study-able population of whales in the world. I had no idea they were going to be the most polluted whales in the world.

This is all part of our heritage, of being a dumpsite. We have legacy pollutants that we have to still clean up. With the Port of Seattle, when we were dredging to build new cruise terminals, we were able to get them to throw some of that muck upland. If you’re going to make way for more commerce, use that economic opportunity to clean up the Sound. The more we think out of the box about how to seize those opportunities and let the economic engine be part of the solution, the more likely we are to have our orca and espresso, too.

The global warming issue is this cloud that hangs on everybody’s head. I’ve recently learned that the Northwest is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of ocean acidification, which we’ve already seen with the oysters’ inabilities to be hatched. That’s going to mean less bait for the forage fish and for the Chinook and then for the killer whales. The killer whales were decimated by the aquarium trade. That’s again part of our legacy problem. We’ve had a couple generations go by for them to rebuild, and we then have the problem that they had historical pollution in their blubber that becomes available because the food isn’t available, and then you add the noise in the water from the shipping traffic, the whale watching traffic, the Navy sonar, all this stuff and it makes the fewer fish out there appear even fewer than they are.

These complicated and intertwined aspects bode poorly for the killer whales’ recovery. It’s become very obvious to me that if you love the whales, you gotta love the herring. Most people are still not making those connections, and that’s something that I’m hoping the Puget Sound Partnership will embrace in a bigger way. You can’t just clean up the Sound. At the same time the biological, as well as the chemical health of the Sound, needs to really be elevated. But when we have the economy in such a bad state, you know, the Governor just declared we have to put holds on regulations, because regulations are bad for the economy. Well, if we want to just promote growth and not mitigate the growth while we do it, we’re going to wake up in our own vomit.

It’s not a lovely thought. There’s a lot of very well-intentioned and capable people behind this current effort to restore Puget Sound, but anybody that’s been at it for a while realizes this is the third, if not fourth time, we’re trying to save Puget Sound. For somebody like Kathy Fletcher, who had the privilege to be part of all of those efforts, the fact that she gets to retire before the job is done, I’m sure, is a little frustrating.

Killer whales basically live a human life cycle. They have kids in their teens and grow to their sixties or seventies. I really hope my grandkids are interested in the study of killer whales because you have to go through a couple of generations before you know anything. I’m hoping that our offspring and our offspring’s offspring continue to carry the torch because, obviously, nobody can sustain this fight for the duration that’s going to be necessary to win this battle.

B: What role do you see for nonprofit organizations like People For Puget Sound?

F: Part of the challenge is there are so many different aspects to the Sound that there are competing pressures to cover it all, versus getting individual things done. It’s hard to be everywhere at the same time, but there’s an essential role that I think People For Puget Sound carries, which is alerting the public to when they can raise their voice on decisions that are being made, whether it be a permit or a legislative thing. Clearly, without an informed and engaged public, there’s no hope whatsoever. All the trade organizations and industry groups out there know how to turn out their people. In the last legislative session when we wanted to, Oh my god! Tax the oil companies! they had all these folks showing up in their work overalls to say how we’re going to close our refineries. Then, within a year of that, the Tesoro refinery blows up and kills people because of their slipshod operations. They had the audacity to bring their working class people down to protest regulations on the refinery, and then they themselves were doing their job so poorly… You know, BP’s refinery was fined for thirteen different violations of worker safety issues while claiming they don’t need regulation.

We need to allow for well-intentioned elected officials and bureaucrats to be able to do their job.  This is something that I find to be just detestful, but it’s reality. I had this woman from the Army Corps of Engineers tell me, “you know Fred, I really appreciate you coming to these meetings and speaking up.” (Because it’s one thing to go to a meeting, the other thing to make sure you are heard.) She goes “We at the Army Corps, we think of ourselves sort of like a large tanker coming to a dock.”

I go, “Okay, you got my attention!”

“We have tugboats guiding us to the dock. And some tugboats are pushing us this way, and other tugboats are pushing us that way, and basically, if we only had tugs on one side, we’d only go one way.”

I’m looking at her, and I go, “I appreciate the analogy, you obviously know how to get my attention, and it’s a compliment that I’m pushing back, that’s the job of the NGO.” But at the same time, I’m like, “Look, you’re a federal employee. Your job is to balance information, not just weigh how many comment letters do I have pro, how many do I have nay, and say the nays win.” There should be empirical evaluation, whether there are a thousand public comments or not, you should be doing the right thing, but in fact that’s not the case.

That’s why People For Puget Sound has an essential role to play, to make sure that your guys who want to do the right thing can be allowed to do the right thing because they say “Look! We’ve got all these people are twisting our arm, we have to do this.” And you can always guarantee that the proponents of the development will have their voices heard, whether it be through public demonstrations, or more likely, through unlimited campaign contributions getting access to the people pulling the strings. Since we’re never going to outspend the bastards, we have to do the up and up public thing, and turn out the people.

I remember when I was a younger man that I used to value my self worth in how many people can I turn out to a public meeting in the course of an evening. This was right after the Exxon Valdez and there was all this public outrage and it was relatively easy to lead this public foment. Then I had a kid, and I realized, at the end of the day, I feel accomplished to get food on the table and homework done, and the idea of then going out to a public hearing, even for things I care about, becomes a little arduous, if not impossible. I realize that this is the dilemma of the normal public and that if we don’t have professional public that go to these meetings on behalf of the public, we’ll never be able to balance the score.
We often ask for public hearings because we don’t feel that the questions have been vetted enough, but nothing’s worse than calling for a public hearing and having nobody show. There’s only so many times you can ask the public to turn out, and they have to understand that something’s really at stake in order to turn out.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing that I’ve encountered in this Puget Sound recovery effort of this new Partnership is this polling data that says the public loves Puget Sound uniformly, everywhere, but nobody knows there’s a problem. So the Partnership’s goal, they claim, is to let people know there’s a problem. I just find it dumbfounding. Anybody that reads the paper knows that [there’s a problem], but people don’t read the paper anymore. Getting information to the public, letting them know what’s at stake and when there are opportunities for their voice to be heard, that’s the essential job of the NGO. And for the NGO that is covering the Puget Sound, that really puts a huge burden on the likes of People For Puget Sound, and, I guess at the same time it’s job security. There’s not a lot of folks that are really looking to take that on.

B: You mentioned that you have a kid. What do you look forward to for your kids to experience?

F: For me, growing up in New York, seeing what a very mature city looks like, and all the mistakes we made historically, I’ve come to believe that the only reason why we’re green is that we’re not used up yet. Our greatest benefit is our newness, and our relative recent colonization of the area, versus any sort of grand planning or particular thoughtfulness. Jobs that get sited here always claim that the employees love to work here because they love the natural environment and being able to go  out sailing on the weekend and  all that sort of thing, that’s considered high value. While it’s a great recruiting tool, I think we could do far better at making sure that it’s there to be used in the future.

B: What about any final take home message?

F: I recently went to a talk at the U, about the history of the marine environmental movement. I thought, wow, I know something about this, I want to hear what this guy has to say. Some guy from some university, in the southern part of back East. He focused only on the last ten years, a relative snapshot. He was really focused on the challenges that the environmental community has had over regulating fish. Having a degree in fisheries, I know something about this. Certainly it’s a place where the public could be better informed and better involved. This guy said that the environmental community has tried to participate in these fishery management councils and to invade that closed system and it’s been an abject failure. The fisheries continue to decline and we are ineffectual. And, wow, that’s a hell of… so glad I came to hear that talk! But, then, his solution was, the politics are so bad in the management councils, the environmental community’s only solution is to team up with the oil industry, who have the financial and political clout to really combat these entrenched fishing interests. I started squirming in my seat something fierce.

When we were making the Olympic Coast Sanctuary, we were fighting offshore oil and gas development. The entire coast of Oregon and Washington was open for lease sales. At that point I realized that if we in the environmental community  don’t team up with the tribal and commercial fishermen, the oil industry is going to have their way with us. I thought of the guys that want to have sustainable fisheries as being our natural partners, whereas the guys looking at short term, one time, non-renewable gains, like the extractive industry, like oil, these were the guys we needed to work against.

Fisheries, with good information, should be able to be sustained. That’s what we were taught in school and I believe we have some great examples, like in Alaska, where salmon are caught by the thousands but are still there to be caught. I believe strongly that the tribal fisheries are one of our most powerful allies. They can’t just go off to Alaska to fish if their fisheries get exploited to death here, because they’re limited to their usual and accustomed fishing areas, but they also have a treaty right that protects that right to do that.

While it is a difficult place to establish trust between tribes and NGOs, it’s something I have spent much of my career trying to do. People say, as a whale biologist, how could you possibly work with the Makah? They hunt whales!

I am firmly of the belief that grey whales are better off with the Makahs as neighbors than they are without. We don’t have offshore oil and gas development in large part because of the Makah, we have tankers that go further offshore because of the Makah, we have a tugboat in Neah Bay in part because of the Makah, we have no anchoring in Makah Bay where the ships used to come right in and drop hooks because of the Makah. So a handful of gray whales will die—and there’s only been two in the past decade or two—so as far as I’m concerned, allying with the people who depend on the natural resource is the natural alliance that we have. You can’t soil where you eat. So when I was watching this [talk and] the lesson learned was to try to roll the fishermen instead of try and work with the fishermen, I think that’s the wrong message.

Obviously, People For Puget Sound has done a great job working the shellfish growers, that’s a clear water quality issue for them. I think we can expand that network for the finfish fisheries as well. In fact, this year we’re hoping to have a major piece of legislation, that I’m working closely with Bruce Wishart on, to engage the fishermen to be front line in oil spill response. These guys live here, have their own boats, know how to navigate the local waters, and they’re highly motivated to protect their own interests from an oil spill. If we equip them, and protect them from the fumes and stuff like that, we should be able to significantly improve our spill response capability with the people who have it most at stake.

The folks in Alaska who I have worked with over the years, the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen’s Advisory Council, they have a great mantra which maybe would be the perfect note to end on. They say, “those who the most to lose when things go wrong should have a say in making things go right.” I think that really encompasses what groups like People For Puget Sound have been doing.

~ by fredfelleman on May 11, 2011.

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