End of Whales

As I sat in the Amtrak train traveling up to Anacortes, WA, to attend one of the final scheduled meetings of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery task force, I couldn’t help but watch the industrial landscape alongside of the railroad and worry about the end of whales. Some of the world’s most magnificent orcas are about to go extinct, and a whole lot more than their physical presence is threatened.

“Saving the killer whale is talking about saving tribal culture and spiritual values,” said task force member Chad Bowechop of the Makah Tribe. When young mother killer whale, Tahlequah, carried her dead newborn on her nose for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles in a trail of unrelenting grief it opened a lot of eyes and hearts. The question at yesterday's meeting was did it change any minds.

Credit: NOAA

The whales need more salmon and without them, they are starving to death. The Lummi Nation has outfitted a boat and attempted to feed live Chinook salmon, the whales’ favorite food, to one young female, J50 or Scarlet, who is so skinny that she should already be dead. The whales are so malnourished that they haven’t managed a successful pregnancy in three years, and there are only fourteen reproductive aged females left. The extinction clock ticks in all our ears.

Gov. Inslee signs Executive Order for Killer Whale Task Force

Credit: OSA

Governor Inslee created this task force in March of 2018, and he charged it with recommending “bold” actions to save the whales. The October due date for the task force’s full report is rapidly approaching, but things are not looking so bold. At least, not yet. While many helpful actions related to reducing the introduction of new toxins into Puget Sound and funding improvements to salmon habitat  have received widespread support from the task force's members, the proposed actions related to management of the Columbia and Snake River Basin hydroelectric dams remain the most controversial, are arguably the most likely to bring large-scale durable change, and still hang in limbo.

The task force seems reluctant to tackle the hard hydropower issues, dodging discussion of increasing the water spilled over the dams for fish or removing the four lower Snake River dams and, instead, relegating that talk to yet-to-be-scheduled on-line webinars.

The task force is considering more than 60 proposed actions on a wide array of issues from habitat restoration to breaching the lower Snake River dams and receiving about twenty public comments a day, reported co-chair Les Purce. When Purce said “breaching the lower Snake River dams” the packed Casino conference room broke out in applause. Sheer mention of the action was perceived as a victory by the large and diverse crowd of devoted attendees who have dogged the task force at every turn to take on dam removal.

There is a large and growing coalition that believes the two single greatest actions we can do for the orcas today and forever relate to the management of the Columbia and Snake River hydropower system. But what do dams in inland Oregon and Washington have to do with orcas in Puget Sound?

Credit: Scott Cushman

Before the dams, the single largest source of Chinook salmon—the whale’s main food—was the Columbia and Snake River Basin. What we need now is (1) to allow for more water (known as “spill”) to aid juvenile salmon passage over the Columbia and Snake River dams and (2) to move forward with a stakeholder process to prepare for and mitigate the removal of the lower Snake River dams so we can replace their energy with zero-carbon alternatives. Only then will we bring back those wild spring Chinook salmon in large numbers and feed the whales.

These two recommendations alone won't save the whales. We need habitat restoration, hatchery support, a reduction in underwater noise, and to clean up our toxic waters too. But if the task force does not make any recommendation related to the Snake River dams, many of the public attendees—who range from tribal chiefs to college students to local government officials to scientists—will consider the task force process a failure.

At the day-long meeting, my greatest hope for meaningful change for the orcas (and for all of us) came from the power, wisdom, and unparalleled authority of the several Native Americans that spoke. Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Government Affairs Director Debra Lekanoff started the meeting off with a prayer for the orca mom. Ray Harris, co-chair of the First Nation Summit and Coast Salish Gathering, said “we went through the same thing the whales are going through, we have been an endangered species, we have felt the weight of governments on top of us, we could hardly breathe.” He also said, “They look after their young just the way we do. They look to their mothers, grandmothers for teachings. The similarities are actually awesome.”

Terry Williams of the Tulalip Tribes reminded the other task force members that “it is going to take a lot of spiritual guidance to do this,” and that the Tulalip stories tell of a time when "one time the whale fed us," and brought salmon when the humans were starving.

"We still remember the time that us and the whale, the wolves and others were equal," Ray Harris said. "Life is out of balance right now," he warned, and "the ocean isn't well." He then looked to the circle of task force members and addressed them directly: "The care and concern we have for the whale is beyond deep. We have no choice but to turn to each of you to ask you to help save the whale."

The task force must bring that sort of urgency and personal connection to its proposed actions and fully confront and consider the hard choices. If it doesn't, a great opportunity for healing for all of us and a great family of whales will be lost. 

To learn more about the Snake River dams and participate in a day of action, boating, music, and speakers on the Snake River this September 7th and 8th, check out www.freethesnake.com.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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