To the rescue: saving lives, taking action on plastic trash in the Salish Sea - Salish Current
September 14, 2023
To the rescue: saving lives, taking action on plastic trash in the Salish Sea
Rena Kingery

“It’s a tremendous feeling” — along with rescuing animals in distress and in danger of dying, the team lead by Martin “Dr. Marty” Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium conducts research to better understand sea animals and improve ways to assist them in the wild. The team’s work will be featured in a free presentation in Bellingham on Sept. 23. (Vancouver Aquarium courtesy photo)

September 14, 2023
To the rescue: saving lives, taking action on plastic trash in the Salish Sea
Rena Kingery

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Jayne Freudenberger loves the sea and her grandchildren, which is why she became a climate activist.

“I look at my grandchildren, and I would feel guilty not working on climate,” Freudenberger said.

As co-chair for the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Bellingham/Whatcom County climate issue team and a passionate climate activist, Freudenberger has witnessed how dedicated communities can make progress on climate issues. Her passion for climate was fueled when the LWV, along with the Lummi Nation, played an integral role in stopping the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point in 2011. [Ed.: Jayne Freudenberger is a member of the Salish Current board of directors.]

A few of the 200-plus animals rescued by “Dr. Marty” Haulena and his team appear in the trailer of “Wild Pacific Rescue.” An exclusive screening of the film is coming to Bellingham, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County as part of the city’s Climate Action Week.

Now, she’s looking to inspire people once again, during Bellingham’s Climate Action Week with an event including screening of a dramatic film of a marine mammal rescue and ideas for activism against the dangers of plastics in the ocean.

“To the Rescue: Protecting Life in the Salish Sea” will feature a talk and an exclusive screening of the 50-minute film by Martin “Dr. Marty” Haulena, director of animal health and head veterinarian at the Vancouver, B.C., Aquarium and executive director of the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue team.

Following screening of the film, Haulena will join Rep. Alex Ramel (D-40) and Jason Morgan, marine projects manager at Northwest Straits Foundation, in a panel discussion on local climate action projects, legislation and how community members can get involved.

The event will be Sept. 23, 9:30 am. to Noon, at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. Registration is free and recommended.

Tangled in human garbage

The film is part of a docuseries that shows Haulena and his team in action, rescuing marine mammals that have become entangled in garbage produced by humans. While the film is packed with drama and made to draw viewers into the most exciting parts of his job, Haulena said much of his work behind the scenes is more mundane.

“There’s a lot of time spent on emails and looking at budgets and that sort of stuff that we all have to do at work,” he said.

But he loves his job and has been passionate about marine wildlife since he was a child.

“I had a particular fascination with animals that live in the sea and the challenges they face,” Haulena said. “And those motivations for the most part are still there.”

Haulena said he is looking forward to sharing his work and film with the Whatcom County community and to feature the collaborations that have made it possible for him and his team to rescue about 200 marine animals every year. They work closely with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (the equivalent of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the U.S.), Parks Canada, First Nations, law enforcement and even whale-watch boats, which serve as their eyes and ears for animals in distress.

“Of course, what we see on the series is me shooting a dart at an animal and a successful rescue, and it’s a tremendous feeling,” Haulena said. “But there’s so much that’s been happening by the time you get to take that shot.”

In addition to rescuing animals in distress, Haulena conducts research to better understand the animals he works with and to develop techniques that help his team do their work in the wild. 

A lifelong fascination with the sea and the creatures that inhabit it are part of the motivation behind “Dr. Marty” Haulena’s work in marine mammal rescue. (Vancouver Aquarium courtesy photo)

One such technique is a protocol for sedating animals that allows them to keep breathing underwater even after they’re asleep. But Haulena is quick to point out that all his work at the Vancouver Aquarium and in animal rescue is a team effort.

“I rely on my team and our collaborators immensely,” he said.

The plastics problem

Many of the entanglements Haulena sees involve plastic waste, and awareness of the dangers of plastic is the focus of LWV’s current climate campaigns. 

Plastic’s connection to climate isn’t straightforward, but plastic is undoubtedly a climate change issue, Freudenberger said. 

From cradle to grave, plastic and its production contribute to 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is about the same as Russia, the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Plastics are made of petrochemicals, created from oil extracted through the process of fracking. Fracking and petrochemical production release greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals into the environment, threatening human health in nearby communities. Even after their production, the most common types of plastic emit methane, the most potent greenhouse gas, as they degrade.

“Plastic never goes away,” Freudenberger said. “It lasts forever and disintegrates into little microbeads,” Freudenberger said, adding that those microbeads find their way into the food chain and into our bodies, where they have been linked to infertility and conditions such as obesity.

Plastic is also affecting the health of the ocean and marine wildlife, as Haulena’s film shows. Haulena said most of the animals that become entangled in plastic waste, such as discarded fishing nets, suffer immensely and eventually die. But when he and his team cut an entanglement away and save an animal, “it is a tremendously awesome feeling,” he said.

Freudenberger said she hopes viewers will experience that feeling along with Haulena and his team during the film showing at the event and to “fall in love with the ocean again.” Those inspired to take action will also learn about small changes they can make in their own lives to reduce plastic use and protect marine wildlife.

“I’m hoping someone sees something they haven’t seen before and just wants to know more about it,” Haulena said. “There’s always something to learn about the ocean.”

Reported by Rena Kingery

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