Orca crisis from a First Nation perspective

Ann Stateler and Odin Lonning. Contributed photo by Erin Corra.

Ann Stateler and Odin Lonning. Contributed photo by Erin Corra.

Editors note: This story has been edited for clarifications and corrections; including the date in which Granny, J 2, took J Pod into Quartermaster Harbor, the length of time between Tahoma’s, J 10, death and Everett’s, J 18, death, and K Pod’s frequency around Vashon Island.

For the first time, after visiting the islands in summer for more than 20 years, First Nations marine naturalists, educators, researchers and conservationists Ann Stateler and Odin Lonning did not see a single orca.

“When I came out here in the early ‘90s, there were nearly 100 Southern residents,” Stateler, frequently called Orca Annie, said. Now, with three recorded deaths this summer, the endangered Southern residents are down to 73, meaning that, despite being listed as endangered in 2005, the population continues to decline, in part due to their main food source, Chinook salmon, also being endangered.

This summer three whales have died, and last summer was also brutal for the Southern residents. J Pod lost a young calf, Scarlet, J50, and J35, Tahlequah, lost her newborn in July 2018. She was seen by both researchers and whale watchers carrying the dead calf for more than two weeks.

“I feel like Tahlequah was doing her own Trail of Tears,” Stateler told the crowd at the 20th Annual Orca Sing on June 22.

Stateler noted that this is not the first time orca mothers have been seen carrying their dead babies on their rostrum. In January 2016, Stateler explained, J31, Tsuchi, was witnessed carrying a dead calf by researcher Mark Sears and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association fisheries crew, while J Pod was in the Seattle area. Sears has been studying the Southern residents during their fall and winter visits to Seattle since the 1970s, Stateler said.

“The whales were only in the area a few hours, and then went north, and were not seen again for weeks, so we have no idea how long she carried the calf,” Stateler said. That Tsuchi is now the mother of J Pod’s latest baby, J56, is heartwarming because she has not had a baby in that three-year time span.

Stateler moved to Friday Harbor to intern at The Whale Museum in 1992. Under that internship, she worked as a naturalist in the museum and at Lime Kiln State Park. She was one of many interns who assisted researcher John Calambokidis on a porpoise survey, and Stateler became one of a dozen or so students to take part in the early beginnings of the Naturalist Training Program.

Stateler, who is of Choctaw-Five Tribes descent, wanted to include more First Nations cultural perspective at The Whale Museum but ended up moving to Vashon Island in 1994.

“By 1999, I was pulling my hair out about what was happening with the Southern residents,” Stateler said.

The J10 subgroup had lost half of their family, while the entire Southern Residents had declined by 20 percent. The realization of the effects of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, on orcas were beginning to be understood, especially after a very charismatic member of J Pod — Everett, J18 — at only approximately 23 years old, was found washed up near Tsawwassen, British Columbia, in 2000, a matter of weeks or months after his mother Tahoma, J10, died.

“I really felt I needed to find a fellow First Nations person who understood,” Stateler said.

That was when she spotted the postcard for a drum show that had the image of a spectacular drum with a fin. Pieces of horse air draped down from the fin. Stateler attended the show and met the maker of that particular drum, Tlingit artist and traditional dancer Lonning.

“He was very supportive, and we were very much simpatico,” Stateler said with a smile. The now-married couple has been inseparable ever since.

Explaining that orcas are seen around Vashon and in the Seattle area more than people realize, especially in the fall and winter, she decided Vashon Island would be an ideal place to install a hydrophone. With Lonning assisting with fundraising and grunt work — pouring concrete and other tedious labor — the couple installed a hydrophone and began the Vashon Hydrophone Project.

Today, the Southern resident population continues its steep decline, and without their elders. Granny, J2, matriarch of J Pod, passed away two years ago, estimated to have been 105 years old; Lummi, K7, matriarch of K Pod, passed away in 2008 at approximately 98 years old; and one of the L Pod matriarchs, Alexis, L12, was last seen in 2012, estimated to have been 78 years old.

“In November 2015, during a visit to Vashon, Granny led J Pod into Quartermaster Harbor – probably for the last time in her life,” Stateler said.

While Southern residents had been seen at the mouth of the harbor, there had not been a record of them entering the harbor since the captures during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“I don’t know whether she was showing her family the harbor again because there used to be more fish there, or because of a brutal capture attempt there in October 1965, or maybe some other important history in her mind,” Stateler said. Granny disappeared in October 2016.

Stateler also noted that each pod, after losing its matriarch, has changed its behavior patterns. For example, since Lummi died, K Pod does not spend as much time in Vashon waters.

That the Southern residents have been appearing less and less in the Salish Sea could, she said, be a combination of lack of salmon as well as the area becoming increasingly inhospitable.

She also noted that the importance of elders is one similarity the Residents have with the First Nations people. As such, orcas have played an important role in First Nations culture. To educate others about the interconnection of orcas with First Nations, Stateler and Lonning created “Kéet Shuká,” a presentation weaving together science, art and Native culture.

With the crises facing the Southern residents, Stateler said, tribal members have considered not fishing Chinook to see if that would help, and she voiced frustration at the U.S. and Canadian governments for lack of action.

“These orcas are like a critical care patient right now; they are bleeding out, and they are basically being given the equivalent of a Band-Aid, an aspirin and an outpatient appointment in six weeks,” Stateler said.

Drastic measures need to be taken, she explained. Putting a temporary moratorium on fishing Chinook would be one step. The Fraser River salmon, she also noted, have been dwindling for years, and she expressed grave concerns over a rockslide and flood gates impeding the fish’s ability to go upstream.

Creating foraging refuges where the orcas could feed in peace would be another.

“There is plenty of data showing where they eat, so it shouldn’t be that difficult,” Stateler noted.

Boat traffic would be banned in these areas, where feasible, and strictly regulated when and where vessel traffic did need to enter such zones. These refuge areas would be closed to fishing, sonar use and tanker traffic. If these measures sound drastic to humans, Stateler said, “Consider all the sacrifices these orcas have made: their babies and elders lost, their home polluted and noisy. The Southern residents are literally sacrificing their lives. And we can’t ask human beings to be slightly inconvenienced and sacrifice something? If not, Southern resident killer whales may well vacate the Salish Sea permanently.”

For more information about “Kéet Shuká” programs, contact Stateler and Lonning by phone at 206-463-9041 or email Vashonorcas@aol.com.