This weekend, thousands of environmental protesters will rally to block the oil flowing to refineries near Anacortes, Washington. But some worry the event may also block the Salish Sea’s largest colony of great blue herons from feeding their young.
More than 2,000 people are expected at March Point, marching, camping in tents and floating in kayaks. Hundreds will risk arrest to “break free” from fossil fuels and fight climate change. It's the last in a series of events around the world this month that include blocking the largest coal terminal in Australia and shutting down the largest open cask coal mine in the United Kingdom.
Ann Eissinger, a biologist who studies herons, says the cause may be noble, but the timing and location of this weekend's protest are terrible for around 1,700 adult herons that breed at March Point. Right now, the herons are foraging to feed the babies in their nests.
"They're in the middle of their nesting cycle," she said. “In some areas, we have as many as 500 to 700 herons feeding at one time. So these are highly sensitive areas and the food is so important for the young.”
Eissinger said all those protesters on land and "kayaktivists" in the water – together with news and police helicopters flying above – could do real damage. They could flush the birds off the water and prevent them from foraging, injure the birds and even blow their nests out of the trees.
"I've had to pick up after helicopters, and it's no fun," she said. "I wish there had been some consultation prior to the organization of the action."
Eissinger drew up a map and guidelines for the event organizers, highlighting sensitive areas to avoid on the ground, in the air and on the water. She said her concerns were met with "a very positive response."
Ahmed Gaya is a spokesman for the "Break Free" event, which is being organized by a number of climate activist groups around the Northwest. He said organizers have adjusted their plans using the maps Eissinger made to minimize the impact on herons.
"We've moved the location of the march so it avoided critical habitat," he said. "We have modified when and where and how many kayakers will be in the bay to avoid paddling at sensitive times and around sensitive habitats. We've had extensive discussions with law enforcement and news media about how they cover that event and which areas to avoid."
He contended that the nearby Shell and Tesoro oil refineries ultimately pose a much bigger threat to the birds. Shell has proposed an expansion at its Anacortes plant that would increase oil train traffic through the area.
"That's much more substantial than anything we can do in a weekend," Gaya said.