To researchers she is J-35. To the Native people of the Salish Sea she is Tahlequah, the young orca mother who pushed the lifeless body of her newborn calf in front of her for 17 days. The birth and death of the baby on July 24 coincided with this year’s Tribal Canoe Journey, the Paddle to Puyallup, and many took Tahlequah’s extended public grieving period as a sign to coastal Native people that their relatives from under the water were calling for help.
On September 13, just a month and a half after the baby’s death, another orca from the same pod was declared dead. J50, known as Scarlett, died of malnutrition. Another death earlier in the summer of a young male, Crewser, J-92, brings the number of Southern Resident Killer Whales in Puget Sound down to just 74.
On September 24, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force, formed last March by Gov. Jay Inslee, released a draft report with recommendations for addressing the issue. It focuses on restoring Chinook salmon populations, which are the Southern Resident Killer Whales’ main food source, reducing the noise impacts of vessels and reducing pollution.
The flurry of publicity generated by Tahlequah and her baby and the deaths of Crewser and Scarlett have moved many tribes in the Northwest to action. The Lummi attempted to feed salmon to the ailing Scarlett in August without success. Rallies and prayer ceremonies honoring the orcas who died have been held by tribes and environmental groups from all over Puget Sound. Also, Gov. Inslee’s task force includes representatives of the Makah, Colville, Squaxin Island, Suquamish, Skokomish, Lummi, Spokane, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Samish tribes.
Although the causes of the orca deaths are complex and multifaceted, the Native people of Puget Sound, part of the Salish Sea, know what the main problem is. The orcas need food.
Save the Orcas, Shoot a Sea Lion
Most orcas eat a variety of prey, from small fish to seals, dolphins and even birds. But the orcas of Puget Sound, the Southern Resident Killer Whales, eat only chinook salmon. This unique aspect of the whales puts them at greater risk of extinction due to the ever decreasing size of yearly salmon runs in Puget Sound.
Urban growth, deforestation, industrial waste and runoff, hydroelectric dams and impassable culverts cause salmon runs to decrease every year. But one additional cause rarely talked about is the rise of the seal and sea lion populations.
Seals, sea lions and other pinnipeds have been protected as endangered species since 1972. Since then their population has more than doubled and the impact has devastated salmon populations.
“The seals and sea lions catch the fish going back upstream to spawn,” Amber Taylor, an Archive Technician for the Puyallup Tribe’s Historic Preservation Department said in a recent interview. “They're just sitting at the mouths of these rivers killing them off. And it's become such a problem.”
A Voice From Beyond the Grave
Amber became an activist promoting a wider understanding of the issue when a video interview of her late father, Eric Bennett, surfaced after he passed away in 2014. Bennett was a member of the Puyallup Tribe’s Fish Commission and the issue of seal and sea lion overpopulation was important to him.
In the video, Bennett speaks from the deck of his seining boat in Puget Sound. Almost immediately after he lets his net out, two sea lions appear waiting to snatch any fish caught.
“It's really discouraging,” Bennett tells the camera. “Before we even put our net in the water, the sea lions show up. Having this many sea lions in this particular area affects those orca pods when they come down. The food isn't here that they need to survive. There's an imbalance in the ecosystem.”
Bennett goes on to recommend thinning of the seal and sea lion populations, just as elk or deer herds are sometimes thinned, a practice currently not allowed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Not long after the video was recorded, Eric Bennett passed away after a ten-year battle with cancer. The video was all but forgotten until recently when Amber came across it at her job with the Puyallup Tribe’s Historic Preservation Department.
After finding the video, Amber Taylor partnered with her grandmother, Ramona Bennett, Eric's mother and a former chair of the Puyallup Tribal Council. Ramona Bennett fought in the Fish Wars of the sixties and seventies and at age 80 is still an outspoken activist who regularly talks at rallies about tribal issues. Together Amber Taylor and Ramona Bennett made and sold “Orca Lives Matter” t-shirts and created handouts to help raise awareness of the problem.
Amber Taylor, her Uncle Michael Hall and her grandmother Ramona Bennett. (Courtesy Amber Taylor/Facebook)
“She's got a great platform to talk with people,” Taylor said, speaking of her grandmother, “and I know the story, so we just kind of pulled together to get the word out.”
Washington Tribes Secret Weapon: The Boldt Decision
On February 12, 1974, Judge George Boldt handed down a decision in a federal lawsuit reaffirming the fishing rights of Washington state treaty tribes and granting them 50 percent of the state’s yearly salmon harvest. In addition, the tribes were made co-managers of the state’s fishing resources.
Micah McCarty, a former Executive Chair of the Nisqually Tribe, feels the key to recovery for the orcas of Puget Sound is the power that treaty tribes gained from helping to manage the salmon harvest.
“Since the Boldt decision in ‘74, you end up seeing tribal governments grow substantially. The Washington State Treaty Tribes have developed a pretty strong national Indian policy profile in part because of our experience through the Boldt Decision in developing management, regulations, authorities, jurisdictions and all of that,” McCarty told ICT.
McCarty feels in recent years tribes have shifted their emphasis away from fishing and more toward gaming.“When you have lobbyists and attorneys and tribal leaders focused on gaming more than fishing, some of these other issues kind of creep up. It's just a capacity limitation.”
But it is through fishing and the Fish Wars that Washington tribes grew in power. And that power stems from the treaties signed in the mid-1800s. In 2016, the Lummi successfully invoked their treaty-protected fishing rights to stop construction of what would have been one of the country’s largest coal storage facilities from being built at Cherry Point in their ancestral waters.
Washington tribes have officially co-managed salmon populations for over 40 years and unofficially managed them since time immemorial. McCarty feels they’ve known what's causing the declining salmon runs and the resulting orca deaths for years and only need to invoke the rights guaranteed them by treaties to restore the salmon and orca populations back up to healthy levels.
The Legacy Lives On
"Back in the sixties,” Eric Bennett says in the video, “when I was at the Puyallup Fish Camp when I was a kid they used to tell us, 'This is all about you.
Eric Bennett on his seining boat in Puget Sound in 2014. Screen capture from a video produced by Glasswater Media.
You guys are our future. We have to make sure that we protect your future as far as tribal members.' That goes on. Now I feel that that's my job to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren have the opportunity to come out here and do what we do as South Sound tribal natives, carry on what our elders carried on for us, and teach them respect for the water."
No task forces or committees will save the orcas of Puget Sound. Instead, it is this respect, passed down through generations, that will ultimately provide salvation for our relatives living under the water.