Lovel Pratt, Friends of the San Juans
In this edition of Client Voices, I interviewed Lovel Pratt, the marine protection and policy director for Friends of the San Juans. For 42 years, Friends of the San Juans has worked with the surrounding community to protect and restore the Salish Sea and the San Juan Islands.
Getting to Know Lovel Pratt
Lovel Pratt was born and raised on the East Coast and moved 30 years ago to the San Juan Islands, in northern Washington. When I asked Lovel how she got where she is now, she said her experience serving on the San Juan County Council was a catalyst for her environmental work.
“I recognized that the biggest threat to San Juan county, both our economy and our environment, was the threat of a major oil spill,” she said.
While in office she allocated a lot of time fighting the threat of oil spills and then got involved with the Washington State Association of Counties. Through this organization she was appointed to various oil spill prevention committees.
Eventually, she was hired as the Marine Protection and Policy Director for Friends of the San Juans. She works within the Healthy Sea Program, which is geared towards the well-being of the Salish Sea, and often with a focus on the protection of the Southern Resident killer whales. She explained the connections between the entire ecosystem: healthy shorelines for forage fish and healthy watersheds for salmon means a healthy food source for Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca). A thriving sea can be home to thriving species and vice versa.
The Salish Sea and San Juan archipelago is a geographically fascinating place. Half of the archipelago is part of Washington State, and is known as the San Juan Islands. The other half, known as the Southern Gulf Islands, is part of Canada. There are over 400 miles of shoreline in San Juan County alone.
Map of the Salish Sea (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic).
I asked Lovel about her experiences working in international waters. She shared that Friends of the San Juans often work with the Canadian organizations, Georgia Strait Alliance and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, as well as the government body, Islands Trust Council. Lovel describes the cross-border relationship to the Islands Trust Council as almost a sister relationship due to their common concerns for the Salish Sea. She explained that Friends of the San Juans sometimes looks at application or permit review processes in Canada.
The location of American and Canadian ports means an increase in vessel traffic in the Salish Sea, which in turn requires a teamwork approach to avoiding accidents. An oil spill anywhere in the region can spread through the waterway.
Closing the Door to the Fossil Fuel Industry
In 2019, Crag challenged the expansion of the Tesoro oil refinery, representing Friends of the San Juans as well as five other environmental organizations. Located in Anacortes, Washington, the refinery wanted to expand its capabilities to include the production of mixed xylenes— a petrochemical that is used in plastic. Lovel clarified that the refinery has undergone several iterations, and is now known as Marathon Petroleum Corporation.
Lovel spoke highly of the work accomplished with Crag, stating: “It was such a pleasure and so fortuitous that we were able to work with Crag on that appeal. It just wouldn’t have happened without Crag.” She explains that the Friends of the San Juans attorney can only represent that organization. Even if Friends wanted to team up with other groups in an appeal, they could not have done so without Crag. “Having Crag Law Center able to facilitate the collective work of the organizations that did participate in that appeal was huge,” she added.
When asked what gave her hope during the fight, Lovel recounts her experiences working with the expert witnesses. An expert witness is a person who testifies in court due to their specialized knowledge related to the case. For example, one of the expert witnesses on the case was a marine mammal veterinarian that conducted necropsies, and had engaged in a lot of research on the causes of death for Southern Resident killer whales. Though the case was won before they were able to share these declarations, Lovel worked hard to collect and prepare their statements. She says that the work of the expert witnesses was “tremendously heartening.”
“If [Tesoro mixed xylenes production] had moved forward, that would’ve opened the door, I think, for other refineries to also adapt and take on those kinds of refining capabilities for the manufacture of plastics.” – Lovel Pratt
Protecting the Endangered Southern Resident Whale
When asked about an aspect of her work that she is particularly passionate about, we began to discuss the Southern Resident whale. The Southern Resident whale is a very social species that travels in matrilineal pods— and only three pods exist today. The Salish Sea is listed as the critical habitat for this whale species. Due to their nature, it can take decades for some groups to recover from a threatening event, such as an oil spill.
It’s not only singular events that threaten them, however. Vessel traffic noise affects the whales every day. To put it in perspective, Lovel compares the vessel traffic noise to talking to a friend at a party. You need to talk louder and expend more energy, just to have a conversation.
The vessel noise also interferes with the whale’s ability to use echolocation to hunt. The whales are already facing starvation due to scarce salmon populations, their preferred prey. It is a complicated and compounded issue: There are not enough fish to eat, the fish that exist are difficult to hunt, they must expend more energy to communicate with each other, and therefore, require more food.
Defeating the oil refinery expansion was a major win for the Southern Resident whales. Lovel and the Friends of the San Juans fought hard to make it happen, but they know the fight has to continue. Protecting species in the Salish Sea will be ongoing as long as oil companies are in business. Help continue to protect the region with Friends of the San Juans here.
Bella Klosterman is a summer 2021 communications intern who is getting her Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies and Spanish. She is interested in environmental justice, forest conservation, and environmental law.