Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

A letter from Lawrence Solomon, secretary of the Lummi Nation, outlines the tribal position.

Based on moral concerns, the tribe supports strong actions to save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. That should involve a health assessment for the two orcas that seem to be in declining health, Kurt said. Feeding the two whales and providing medicine to help them recover could be part of the plan, he added. Whether the tribe could support capturing the whales to nurse them back to health is a controversial question that has not yet been resolved among tribal members, he said.

“How does the moral obligation define that scenario?” Kurt wondered. “It would be traumatic to take a whale away from its family. There is not a firm decision yet about that solution.”

Finding a way to feed the entire population of 75 Southern Residents could be critical to their survival, Kurt said, and it might require setting up feeding stations where the whales could come for food.

“The killer whales are sending a message,” Kurt said. “It’s now or never. We will soon know if the Salish Sea is going to remain an ecosystem that can be repaired. It’s not an issue of more science. We have to act on what we know.”

Legal rights for orcas themselves

A coalition of various groups today unveiled a declaration proclaiming the inherent rights of the Southern Resident orcas to exist. The recognition comes with some urgency, according to the group, because a new calf was recently born — the first birth in three years.

“We’d be having very different conversations if we approached recovery with the orca’s best interests in mind,” said Elizabeth M. Dunne in a news release.

“The orca shows us how our current laws are not remedying the severe decline of entire ecosystems – from the Salish Sea to the Columbia River basin and Snake River watershed,” said Dunne, who helped draft the declaration. “We must adopt a framework recognizing that ecosystems have the rights — to exist, flourish, evolve, to sustain life, and to be restored to a healthy state — if we truly want to save the orca, and ultimately ourselves, from extinction.”

Among its provisions, the Declaration of the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas calls for the immediate creation of a stewardship board for the Salish Sea based on a rights-of-nature framework. It should include a guardian representation for the Southern Resident Orcas, according to the petition.

Movie: “The Whale” to play in Port Orchard

The true story of Luna, a young killer whale separated from his Southern Resident community, will be shown tomorrow (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema in downtown Port Orchard. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido invited me to be on hand after the movie to answer questions and talk about orcas.

Luna, or L-98, made his appearance suddenly in 2001 in Nootka Sound along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where he became lonely and developed a habit of seeking out human companionship. An effort to capture the orca and return him to the Salish Sea failed amidst a conflict between the Canadian government and the local band of First Nations people.

In a move review I wrote for Water Ways in September 2011, I called “The Whale” a beautiful film for its photography and careful portrayal of characters and situations. It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints, but I thought filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit pulled it off accurately.

I happen to know something about this story, because I was in Nootka Sound for two weeks leading up to the attempted capture of Luna and for a short time after the project was abandoned. I was the so-called “pool reporter” representing U.S. media, and I became acquainted with Mike and Suzanne.

Ways of Whales Workshop

On Saturday, the annual Ways of Whales Workshop, including speakers and presentations on a variety of marine mammal topics, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Coupeville Middle School, 501 S. Main St, on Whidbey Island.

Speakers and their topics include:

  • Howard Garrett of Orca Network on Lolita/Tokitae;
  • Cindy Elliser of Pacific Mammal Research on harbor porpoise status and identification;
  • Stephanie Norman of Marine-Med and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network on harbor porpoise health and diseases;
  • Sandra O’Neill of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on contamination in herring, salmon and orcas;
  • Amy Carey of Sound Action on nearshore habitat protection and regulatory reform; and
  • Deborah Giles on Southern Resident killer whale research.

Singer/songwriter Dana Lyons will perform his song “The Great Salish Sea.”

The event is sponsored by Orca Network. Cost for the workshop is $35, or $25 for students and seniors. Lunch is available for an additional $10. Advance registration is highly recommended because of limited seating. Visit www.orcanetwork.org, email info@orcanetwork.org or call either 360-331-3543 or 1-866-ORCANET.

A no-host social will follow at Ciao Restaurant in Coupeville for everyone attending the workshop.

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