New allies in killer whale recovery? Orcas adopted by Obama girls

Presented to the president as gifts for his daughters, the orca adoptions are intended to help raise the profile of the plight of the Southern resident killer whales and underscore how breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River is the swiftest course of action to provide the endangered population with a greater abundance of food, Chinook salmon.

Gary Weiss has witnessed first-hand how having friends in high places can help further an important cause.

And, that’s a big reason why the photographs of a certain two Southern resident killer whales are likely tacked up on a wall somewhere in the White House by now, or perhaps on the refrigerator.

The daughters of the First Family of the United States, Malia and Sasha Obama, recently became united with two members of J-pod through the Friday Harbor Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program. Dr. Weiss presented a pair of adoption certificates and accompanying memorabilia to the president as gifts for his daughters girls at a May 27 roundtable discussion in Washington D.C.

“I wouldn’t say it had really been on his radar before,” he said of the president’s familiarity with issues related to salmon and the Snake River dams. “But he did seem very interested and there is a sense that it’s something he might be able to do through an executive order.”

The gifts are intended to help raise the profile of the plight of the Southern residents and underscore how breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River is the swiftest course of action to provide the endangered population with a greater abundance of food, Chinook salmon, in particular, Weiss said.

J-35United by birth

Customized and enhanced by local orca whale advocate Monika Wieland, the “adoption
papers” are tailored-made for both girls.

The two adoptees, both females, share the same birth year with each girl, respectively. Seventeen-year-old Malia’s adoptive killer whale is J-35 (pictured at left), born in 1998, and 14-year-old Sasha’s is J-37, born in 2001 (pictured below).

A neurologist by profession, father of a marine mammal researcher, Michael, himself a former Whale Museum intern, and a cousin of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., Weiss also made a pitch to the president as to why those four dams should be breached.

He was one of 25 participants at the roundtable and, in addition to providing the president with a 13-page packet summing up the reasons why the dams should be dismantled, the Florida neurologist was first to raise his hand and be called upon to state his case.

“(Obama) said that he couldn’t really guarantee any result but that he would give the issue a serious look and see what he might be able to do,” said Weiss, adding that Obama accepted the gifts with a healthy dose of humor in spite of the swarm of dam-related statistics lobbed his way.

“His response was, ‘I’m not so sure the White House bathtub is big enough for us to be able to adopt these whales’,” he recalls.

‘Recovery’ remains elusive

Listed endangered under the federal law in 2005, the Southern residents consisted at that time of 88 animals. Made up of three closely related clans, J, K and L pods, the population totals 80 whales today. It hit a 30-year low late last year after a two-plus year drought of newborns, followed more recently by three births over the winter months.

Under a federally mandated recovery plan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tasked with implementing the Endangered Species Act, lists lack of prey (salmon), pollution and disturbance by vessels as the three greatest threats to the Southern residents survival. The population earned a recent distinction, a dubious at that, by becoming one of seven other ESA-listed marine species considered by NOAA to be the most “imperiled of the imperiled.”

The idea of presenting the president with orca adoptions took flight at marine mammal conference last year in Baja Mexico, where Weiss met up with supporters of the locally J-37based Southern Resident Killer Whales Chinook Salmon Initiative. The group has collected thousands of signatures in a few short months on a petition calling for the dismantling of the four Lower Snake River dams, a course of action meant to boost the imperiled orcas primary food source, Chinook salmon.

“Gary was thinking that it would be great to have some kind of connection between the president and the orcas,” Wieland recalls. “I hope something comes out of it in the end.”

The personal touch has worked before, Weiss said.

Economics, ESA collide

It was in Baja, some years back, where the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group to which Weiss contributes financially, were able to spare one of the last remaining grey whale breeding grounds from development by urging the president of Mexico, and his wife, to take a tour of the embattled area. The president put a kibosh on the pending project immediately after that visit.

The Snake River Dams reportedly are in need of costly upgrades and repair, and will soon require renewal of a federally issued license to continue to operate. Salmon Initiative supporters contend those improvement costs, borne by taxpayers, exceed whatever economic benefit the federally managed dams provide and take a large toll on the river’s various stocks of threatened and endangered salmon.

The prolonged existence of the dams threatened not only the survival of the Southern residents, but the economic health of the San Juans, Weiss said. While the Salish Sea may be their seasonal hunting grounds, he adds that their recovery is a matter of importance nationwide.

“The Southern residents are kind of America’s whales, not just the Pacific Northwest’s,” he said. “Losing them would be a true American tragedy.”