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A Pod of Orcas Is Starving to Death. A Tribe Has a Radical Plan to Feed Them
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=49753"><span class="small">Levi Pulkkinen, Guardian UK</span></a>   
Thursday, 25 April 2019 12:43

Excerpt: "'The bottom line is the Salish Sea and the whales and the tribes need more salmon,' said Julius, the elected leader of the 6,500-member tribe."

An orca surfaces off San Juan Island, Washington. (photo: Matthew Ryan Williams/The New York Times)
An orca surfaces off San Juan Island, Washington. (photo: Matthew Ryan Williams/The New York Times)

A Pod of Orcas Is Starving to Death. A Tribe Has a Radical Plan to Feed Them

By Levi Pulkkinen, Guardian UK

25 April 19

The Lummi Nation is dropping live salmon into the sea in a last-ditch rescue effort: ‘We don’t have much time’

obbing on the gray-green waters west of Washington state’s San Juan Island, Sle-lh’x elten Jeremiah Julius lifted a Chinook salmon from a 200-gallon blue plastic fish box. He carried the gulping fish to the boat’s rail and slid it into the sea, where it lingered a moment, then disappeared in a silver flash.

It was a quietly radical act.

This sea once teemed with the giant salmon, which in turn sustained thriving pods of orca. Today wild Chinook fisheries are in decline, and the orcas are starving. Julius is the chairman of the Lummi Nation, a tribe pushing an unorthodox policy. They are feeding salmon to the wild whales.

Numbering close to 100 two decades ago, the population of southern resident orca has dropped to just 75 as a result of pollution in their environment, ship noise that drowns out their sonic communication and hinders their hunting, and, most crucially, a paucity of wild Chinook. Older whales have been seen wasting away, miscarriages are on the rise, and infant orca born alive are not surviving to adulthood. Last year a mother whale, Tahlequah, carried her dead calf for two and a half weeks in a scene that sparked an international outcry.

The Lummi Nation has long shared a coast and culture with the whales, an orca community found only in the waters off Seattle and Vancouver known as the Salish Sea. The tribe’s members once lived on the shores of the San Juans, now dotted with quaint tourist towns, million-dollar vacation homes and resorts, and they see the whales as their relatives.

The fish slipped to the orca was both a prayer and a signal to the starving whales that the tribe would not sit back and watch them vanish.

Before the Chinook was returned to the water, a Lummi drummer sang the story of a great flood said to have brought the tribe to the islands. The Lummi consider themselves to be survivors of that long-ago flood; the survivor’s song is their nation’s anthem. But they worry they, the salmon and the orca will not survive the present disaster.

“The bottom line is the Salish Sea and the whales and the tribes need more salmon,” said Julius, the elected leader of the 6,500-member tribe. “We’re at the point now where we don’t have much time. We are possibly the last generation that can do anything about it.”

‘We see them as family’

Tribal members speak of a visceral connection to whales felt in day-to-day life and experienced through ceremony.

“It’s hard to explain because it is all in the [Lummi] language. Sometimes there are no words to explain how it is,” the hereditary Lummi chief, Tsi’li’xw Bill James, said. “This is the way we live our lives, which is different from how you live.”

By tradition, elders use song and ritual to reach out to the “longhouses under the water”, as they envision the orcas’ habitation, to offer the whales their blessings and listen for a reply. Totem poles are carved with the orca’s image, sometimes accompanied by a human rider as a symbol of rebirth. Tribal members talk of feeling the whales passing by, of a calling from their relatives.

“We as Lummis learn pretty early on who our relations are, and we are taught that those are our relations under the waves,” said Squil-le-he-le Raynell Morris, a White House staffer during the Clinton presidency who returned to the Lummi reservation a decade ago.

“We see them as part of our family, part of our community.”

Back-to-back orca deaths over the summer hit the Lummi reservation hard, particularly the death of Tahlequah’s calf.

“She showed the world, ‘Look at what you did to my baby,’” said Tse-Sealth Jewell James, a Lummi master totem pole carver. Having lost two children of his own, the carver understood the orca’s instinct. “I look at the whale, and I say, ‘Yeah, I understand. You can’t just let them go.’”

The deaths invigorated state and federal efforts, such as limiting fishing and restricting ship traffic, to improve salmon and whale habitats. But the tribe and its supporters want more, and faster. Lummi leaders have since begun feeding orcas ceremonially, while calling for a large-scale feeding effort that could include salmon stations scattered around Puget Sound.

The proposal would mark an unprecedented step. It has not received support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), the leading federal agency tasked with protecting the orca. In the past, feeding programs have sustained terrestrial endangered species such as the California condor, not migratory whales.

Noaa believes such efforts risk making the whales dependent on humans for their survival. Michael Milstein, a public affairs officer for the agency’s fisheries division, praised the Lummi’s work on habitat restoration but said direct feeding was not “a sustainable recovery strategy”.

Absent federal permission, the Lummi may move forward alone. For members such as Morris, there is no time to wait. “They are seeing their babies being born dead. They are seeing their babies die,” she said, speaking through tears. “And the matriarchs, the moms and grandmas, can’t fix it. So they’re calling out for our help.”

‘A desperate, last-ditch effort’

The broader scientific community is split on the proposal. Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, says the orcas’ situation is so precarious that one event could wipe them out.

“A catastrophic oil spill in the sound. A particularly bad Chinook return,” Teel Simmonds said. “It really is now or never for these orcas … and that’s why we have to take every approach we have.”

Teel Simmonds noted that it was unclear whether orca could be fed, or if wild orca would hunt fish dropped for them, but did not object to the Lummi attempts.

“It is a desperate, last-ditch effort. We understand it,” she said. “We’re open to any possible solution that could help save these orcas.”

But Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, described feeding as a “bad idea”. Wasser said the orca require a sustained supply of salmon, and a less toxic environment, if they are to survive.

“You can’t save these animals one whale at a time,” he said. “They are another example of an apex predator being decimated by human over-indulgence, which undoubtedly impacts ecosystem stability. As in many of these cases, we are doing too little too late.”

Standing on a half-moon gravel beach on tiny Henry Island just east of the Canadian border, eight Lummi gathered on a recent spring day to reach out to their relations under the waves. The gathering was part of a ritual to connect with the orca and learn, James said, where the Chinook should be delivered.

Hand drums sounded as the chief sang in the Lummi language. Flames from a driftwood fire lit the faces of two dark, wooden spirit boards making tight vertical circles in the hands of elders, their cheekbones smudged with red circles.

Later, on the feeding boat, chief James sat with a blanket on his lap. “We’re asking for the wellbeing for everything that lives in the Salish Sea, as you folks call it,” he said. “The greater society has to decide whether they’re going to help or not.”

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