To the Tlingit and other Coastal First Nations, Kéet (killer whales) are family. As First Nations conservationists, Odin and I feel a solemn obligation to protect our sacred Kéet relatives. We strive to sustain an ancestral legacy of profound respect for non-human sentient beings and the natural world. Inherent in Coastal Native cultures is reverence for killer whales, salmon, and the Salish Sea.
October 8 was Indigenous Peoples Day. In the days preceding it, we concentrated on a vanishing tribe of Indigenous people under the sea: the Southern Residents (SRKW). In the wee hours, our eyes glazed over as we slogged through the SRKW Task Force draft report, submitting comments. The process was lengthy and laborious because the session got “timed out,” but we persisted for our Kéet relatives.
We contemplated the somber spectacle of J Pod in mourning, roaming their Trail of Tears with Scarlet (J50) slowly wasting away and Tahlequah (J35) cradling her dead baby for 17 days. These orcas have been on a tragic Trail for years: J Pod has lost thirteen family members, including newborns and stillborns, since 2013.
In recent aerial images, our brother Scoter (K25), b. 1991, looks thin — another gloomy prospect. He is vulnerable because his mother Skagit (K13) died in 2017. Since 2012, remnants of a satellite tag have been embedded in his dorsal fin, which likely makes him more susceptible to disease. To readers who attend our presentations, you know I expressed concern about this scenario five years ago, when the tag did not detach.
After years of watching our SRKW relatives starve and die, we feel deep despair and outrage. Just as sickly Scarlet compelled an emergency intervention, the dire plight of the entire Southern Resident community requires an emergency intervention. The SRKW Task Force draft report is a woefully inadequate response to the intense grief and suffering of our sisters Tahlequah and Scarlet and the distress of all SRKW.
Replete with anemic half-measures, this report is tinkering around the edges of an extinction crisis – trying to douse a raging fire with a squirt gun. Vested interests appear unwilling to make necessary sacrifices. Embedded in this politically expedient document are potential spoils for organizations whose flawed decisions and actions contributed to the critically endangered status of the SRKW. Some offenders could benefit financially from “helping” to remedy problems that they created. NGOs that boast of being on the task force or in the working groups have nothing to crow about, thus far. Killing sea lions and seals is not “bold action.”
Many more orcas will die unless radical changes are made. The SRKW need dedicated foraging refuges where they can feed, rest, and socialize with minimal disturbance. I repeat: immediately closing recreational and commercial marine Chinook fisheries; imposing a moratorium on commercial and recreational whale watching targeting the SRKW; and actively enforcing these measures – this is what emergency response looks like. The recommendations in the draft report fall short of such audacity.
To elicit cooperation from special interests, the task force must ask everyone to forfeit something of value. Spreading the discomfort among stakeholders is equitable. The whale watch industry would still rake in money from trips that focus on Transient orcas, Humpbacks, Gray whales, and other wildlife. Call me naïve, but couldn’t commercial fisheries harvest other species of salmon for a few cycles and still be profitable?
This draft report apparently assumes we have the luxury of time to save our orcas. If we hope to share the Salish Sea with SRKW in twenty years, the task force cannot merely appease stakeholders. We urge the public to continue offering feedback: insist that the task force confront the imminent demise of the SRKW with crisis intervention. Tell them to send the ambulance, not the donkey cart.
Unlike many on the task force and in the working groups, Odin and I are not beholden to any special interests or powerful donors. Our commitment is to be a resolute Indigenous voice — distinctive and uncompromised — for our Southern Resident Kéet kin. Two-leggeds are obliged to clean up the toxic, noisy mess they made in the orcas’ ancestral home, stop greedily depleting the Chinook, and afford Kéet the space to eat, socialize, and observe their cultural traditions in peace. Our SRKW family deserves nothing less.
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS & STRANDINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041. We have resting sea lions! When reporting a sighting or stranding, be specific: date, time, location, travel direction, species description, number of whales/seals/etc., and behavior observed. We prefer phone reports, but if email is the only way to coax you to report to us, send sightings and photos to Vashonorcas@aol.com. Your photos of marine mammals are valuable for ID purposes. Do not assume we will randomly find stuff posted online. We are grateful to everyone who reports directly to us.