Our Relatives That Live Under The Water
That is the English translation of the Lummi phrase “qwe lhol mechen.” It is the phrase that is used to name the Southern Resident Orcas or “black fish” that once dominated the seascape of the Puget Sound within the Salish Sea.
Right now the qwe lhol mechen are in very grave danger, even more than many of us can fathom. As of September 2018, there are only 74 orcas that inhabit the Puget Sound. One orca, Tokitae, is being held in Miami Seaquarium in Florida. The Southern Resident qwe lhol mechen are a listed endangered species both in Canada and the U.S. (2005).
Recently, the Southern Resident Orca pods (J, K and L) have had devastating losses. Tahlequah (J35 ) spent 17 days carrying her dead calf for a thousand miles. The death of Tahlequah’s calf coincided with this year’s Paddle to Puyallup Canoe Journey and the “public grieving period as a sign to coastal Native people that their relatives from under the water were calling for help.” (Indian Country Today, October 2, 2018). A memorial was held for the calf on Sept 21, 2018 in Seattle. Soon after, Scarlet (J50), 3-1/2 years-old, was discovered with severely failing health. Officials and Lummi Nation attempted to treat her, however her condition worsened. She is now missing and presumed dead.
On March 14, 2018, Governor Inslee signed an executive order (18-02) outlined tasks for the various state agencies to explore short- and long-term steps to “recover these iconic and endangered animals.” It establishes the “Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force” created to “identify, prioritize, and support the implementation of a longer term action plan needed for the recovery of Southern Residents and necessary to secure a healthy and sustained population for the future.” State agencies directed to act include the WA State Department of Fish and Wildlife (watersheds, prey, fishing regulations), Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (vessels and Chinook fisheries), WA State Department of Ecology (vessel traffic impacts), WA State Department of Transportation (ferries) along with other organization such as the Puget Sound Partnership and the Northwest Tribes and Nations inside and outside the Partnership.
A draft of potential recommendations was recently open for public comment (ended October 7th). Recommendations run the gamut from increasing prey (presumably the endangered Chinook salmon), residential and commercial water usage, habitat destruction, water pollution, hatchery production, dams, fishing, salmon predators (other than the Orcas), loss of herring, impacts of vessel traffic, and the impacts of climate change.
The Task Force is scheduled to release a final comprehensive report with recommendations for Southern Residents Orca recovery by November 1, 2018.
Fall 2018 issue of the Northwest Indians Fisheries Commission magazine states the Tribes and Nations are very much involve in Governor Inslee’s task force and in other areas such as Lummi Nation working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to get medicines and food to the ailing Scarlet.
With all of the potential actions that could be taken, it’s the discussion around removing the lower four dams along that Snake River that is seen a high priority. It’s something that’s been argued about over the last several decades and is no less controversial today. In 2016, the United States Army Corp of Engineers stated “no one salmon recovery action on a single river, such as breaching dams on the Snake, would itself bring about the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales.” (Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Snake River Dams). On the other side, Lynda Mapes reported some of the dams’ history: “For more than 20 years, federal judges have called for an overhaul of dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers to boost salmon survival. For the fifth time the issue is back in federal court, and once again, a judge has called for federal agencies to take a hard look at the removal of Lower Snake River dams.”
The question is now, whether the deaths of Tahlequah’s calf and Scarlet, having resonated around the world, and the dwindling number of the Southern Resident Orcas, be enough to motivate policy makers, legislators, agencies heads and commercial interests in the Pacific Northwest to make the concessions necessary to ensure the survival of an ancient and honor relative, not only the Pacific Northwest Tribes, but of the rest of us as well.
“If we allow our relative to go extinct their blood is on our hands,” said Jesse Nightwalkern, a member of the Palouse tribe of eastern Washington. “The loss of orca is the loss of mankind. … we can no longer afford doing the wrong thing.” (Island Sounder, Sept, 5, 2018)
Call to Action:
Follow the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force
Write to the USACE:
Walla Walla District Public Affairs
201 North 3rd Avenue
Walla Walla, WA 99362-1876
Write to Governor Inslee:
Office of the Governor
PO Box 40002
Olympia, WA 98504-0002
Write to Federal Legislators to strengthen Endangered Species Act, not weaken it.
Write to State Legislators to move forward on legislation and uphold Court decisions:
Write letters to your editor