Category Archives: Tribes

Sponsor of state oil-spill-prevention bill recalls Exxon Valdez disaster

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, grew up in the small town of Yakutat, Alaska, where her entire family and most of her friends hunted and fished, following Native American traditions passed down from their ancestors.

Rep. Lekanoff carries with her that indelible perspective, as she goes about the business of law-making. Like all of us, her personal history has shaped the forces that drive her today. Now, as sponsor of House Bill 1578, she is pushing hard for a law to help protect Puget Sound from a catastrophic oil spill.

KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, presented a program Sunday on the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. // Video: KTVA-TV

In 1989, Debra, a member of the Tlinget Tribe, was about to graduate from high school when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, some 220 miles northwest of her hometown. The spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil ultimately killed an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales, along with untold numbers of fish and crabs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (PDF 11.5 mb). That was 30 years ago this past Sunday.

After graduation, many of Debra’s classmates went to the disaster area and took jobs picking up dead and dying animals covered in oil. While Debra did not visit the devastation, she listened to the terrible stories and read letters written by her friends.

“These were boys who grew up hunting and fishing,” she said. “They knew the importance of natural resources. I can only imagine how they felt picking up the dead animals. We lost a whole pod of orcas from that spill, and today you can still turn over the rocks and find oil underneath.”

The Exxon Valdez oil spill “woke up the state of Alaska” to the devastating threats posed by oil transport, she said, and it triggered an ongoing investment in oil-spill prevention.

Lekanoff moved to Washington state, where she graduated from Central Washington University and eventually went to work for the Swinomish Tribe in North Puget Sound, where she works as government affairs director.

Last year, she was selected by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, trying to find ways to save the critically endangered orcas from extinction. One measure promoted by the task force — and supported by outside studies — was to take additional steps to reduce the risks of an accident involving a tanker or barge.

Debra tells me she has one word that guides her views on the subject of oil transportation: “prevention-prevention-prevention,” which reinforces the idea of redundancy. Tug escorts and “rescue tugs” for oil tankers and barges are part of the redundancy called for in HB 1578. Other recommendations from the Department of Ecology include extra personnel aboard the vessels to watch out for developing conditions.

Computer models can be used to calculate the risks of a catastrophic oil spill in Puget Sound, something I recently wrote about for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. But the real world does not run on computer models. So it becomes difficult to decide how much risk is acceptable when considering the potential loss of incalculable values, such as fish, wildlife and the Northwest lifestyle.

Rep. Lekanoff, 48, who was first elected to the Legislature last year, said Washington state needs to move away from a pollution-based economy, which has already decimated a vast abundance of salmon while pushing our cherished orcas to the brink of extinction.

The Skagit River in North Puget Sound is the only river left in the Lower 48 states able to sustain all five species of salmon, she said, and now even that river is threatened by proposed mining operations and changing streamflows caused by climate change.

Lekanoff said she sees her role as a person who can build strong relationships between the state, federal and tribal governments to protect and restore natural resources in our region.

“We need to build a better future for the generations to come,” she told me, and that requires looking past short-term gains to consider the long-term results of legislative actions.

As sponsor of HB 1578, a bill drafted and heavily promoted by the Governor’s Office, Lekanoff said the challenge has been to engage with various interest groups, share scientific information and seek out common interests.

“This bill,” she said, “is a clear example of what we can do together. We needed everyone at the table.”

For tanker traffic traveling through Rosario Strait near the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff’s bill would require tug escorts for vessels over 5,000 deadweight tons along with studies to determine what other measures are needed. Currently, tug escorts come into play only for tanker ships over 40,000 deadweight tons, and there are no escort requirements for barges of any size.

The next step will be to get everyone at the table again to discuss the risks of tanker traffic traveling through Haro Straight, a prime feeding ground for orcas in the San Juan Islands, Lekanoff said. Prevention-prevention-prevention — including the potential of tug escorts — will again be a primary topic of discussion.

Lekanoff’s bill passed the House March 7 on a 70-28 vote and moved out of the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy and Technology on Tuesday. The bill will make a stop at the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the floor for a vote by all senators.

A new federal law recognizes Washington’s maritime heritage

The Maritime Washington National Heritage Area — which now encompasses about 3,000 miles of saltwater shoreline in Western Washington — was created yesterday within a wide-ranging lands bill signed into law by President Trump.

Maritime Washington National Heritage Area encompasses most of the saltwater shoreline throughout Western Washington.
Map: Maritime Washington NHA feasibility study

Created to celebrate the maritime history and culture of Puget Sound and Coastal Washington, the Maritime Washington NHA is the first designated area of its kind in the United States to focus entirely on maritime matters.

The designation is expected to provide funding to promote and coordinate maritime museums, historic ships, boatbuilding, and education, including discussions of early marine transportation and commerce in Washington state.

“We are thrilled about this,” said Chris Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. “The stories we want to convey are important to so many people.

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Orcas gain increasing clout during fishing season discussions

Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are becoming fully integrated into annual planning efforts that divide up the available salmon harvest among user groups — including sport, commercial and tribal fishers.

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf Windsong (L-121) in 2015.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS and FAA permits.

The southern resident killer whales should be given priority for salmon over human fishers, according to a fishing policy adopted for 2019-2023 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new policy calls for “proper protection to SRKW from reduction to prey availability or from fishery vessel traffic …”

The problem with allocating a specific number of salmon to the orcas is that the whales cannot tell us when or where they would like to take salmon for their own consumption. The result, now in the planning stages, is to limit or close fishing in areas where the orcas are most likely to forage during the fishing seasons.

As revealed yesterday during the annual “North of Falcon” forecast meeting, fewer chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary food — are expected to return to Puget Sound this year compared to last year, but more coho salmon should be available for sport and tribal fishermen. The challenge, according to harvest managers, is to set fishing seasons to take harvestable coho without unduly affecting the wild chinook — a threatened species in Puget Sound.

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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.

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Salmon report mixes good and bad news, with a touch of hope

The story of salmon recovery in Washington state is a mixture of good and bad news, according to the latest “State of the Salmon” report issued by the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.

It’s the usual story of congratulations for 20 years of salmon restoration and protection, along with a sobering reminder about how the growing human population in our region has systematically dismantled natural functions for nearly 150 years.

“We must all do our part to protect our state’s wild salmon,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a news release. “As we face a changing climate, growing population and other challenges, now is the time to double down on our efforts to restore salmon to levels that sustain them, our fishing industry and the communities that rely on them. Salmon are crucial to our future and to the survival of beloved orca whales.”

The report reminds us that salmon are important to the culture of our region and to the ecosystem, which includes our cherished killer whales. It is, however, frustrating for everyone to see so little progress in the number of salmon returning to the streams, as reflected in this summary found in the report:

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

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Salmon migration on display during Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours

Recent rains are bringing chum salmon into numerous streams on the Kitsap Peninsula, according to Jon Oleyar, biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. But more rains are needed to help the salmon reach the upper tributaries and fully seed the system, he added.

Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek on Thursday (11-1). // Photo: Emma Jeffries

“The fall fish are right on schedule,” Jon told me, “but I wish they had more water, especially for the tributaries.”

Folks attending the Kitsap Salmon Tours this Saturday should be able to see fish in most locations on this year’s list. Read on for details.

The fall chum themselves seem larger than average this year, Jon said, which means the streams need a little more water than usual for the fish to easily swim upstream.

Salmon can move quickly upstream and become stranded in too-shallow water after a downpour followed by a dry period, he said. In a worst-case scenario, fish may die before spawning. Once the rains have saturated the soil, the risk of low flows is reduced, but as of today we’re not at that point yet. Heavy rains last Saturday brought many fish into the streams, he added, but streams levels have dropped somewhat since then.

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Efforts continue to retrieve orca Lolita, despite legal setback

Although the Endangered Species Act may encourage extraordinary efforts to save Puget Sound’s killer whales from extinction, it cannot be used to bring home the last Puget Sound orca still in captivity, a court has ruled.

A 51-year-old killer whale named Lolita, otherwise called Tokitae, has been living in Miami Seaquarium since shortly after her capture in 1970. Her clan — the Southern Resident killer whales — were listed as endangered in 2005, but the federal listing specifically excluded captive killer whales.

In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) successfully petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to have Lolita included among the endangered whales. But the endangered listing has done nothing to help those who hoped Lolita’s owners would be forced to allow a transition of the whale back into Puget Sound.

This week, the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reiterated its earlier finding that Lolita has not been injured or harassed to the point that her captivity at the Miami Seaquarium violates the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA.

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New film celebrates the history of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and I was pleased to see that producer/director Shane Anderson and Pacific Rivers are allowing the documentary “Run Wild Run Free” to be shown online for three days before the film goes back into limited showings.

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Impassioned task force faces the challenge of saving endangered orcas

Passion for saving Puget Sound’s killer whales is driving an exhaustive search for ways to restore the whales to health and rebuild their population, but hard science must contribute to the search for workable answers.

I recently updated readers on the efforts of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to change the course of a population headed toward extinction. Read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound or the version reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

I began the story by mentioning the term “no silver bullet,” a term I have heard numerous times from folks involved in the task force. They are emphasizing how difficult it is to restore a damaged ecosystem, while orcas wait for food at the top of a complex food web. All sorts of people are looking for a quick fix, something that will increase the number of Chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — within their range, which includes the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean from Vancouver Island to Northern California.

The quickest and simplest answers:

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