British Columbia

Lummi Nation calls for 'state of emergency' to aid dwindling orca population

Members of the Lummi Nation held a ceremony close to the U.S. San Juan Islands to pray for the dwindling southern sesident killer whale population.

'She was telling us, come and help me,' says Lummi elder, of calf's death last summer

Jay Julius, chair of the Lummi Nation, blames water pollution, captivity, tanker traffic, over-fishing and climate change as reasons for dwindling orca numbers. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Elders and leaders of the Lummi Nation released a single Chinook salmon into the Salish Sea off western Washington State Wednesday as part of a spiritual ceremony for J17, an orca who showed signs of malnutrition early this year.

The Lummi community, located about 10 kilometres northwest of Bellingham, Wash., conducted the ceremonial feeding in a bid to draw attention to dwindling numbers of southern resident whales, now estimated to number in the 80s.

The health of the matriarch orca known as J17, which is part of the southern resident killer whale population, is said to be improving, according to the Centre for Whale Research.

But some Lummi members still have grave concerns. The nation has called on the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to declare a state of emergency and suspend a U.S. regulation that forbids people from feeding orcas.

They say the orcas are starving and they're willing to help.

One of the biggest threats to the survival of the southern resident killer whales is the dwindling supply of their primary food source — chinook salmon. 

The ceremonial whale feeding was conducted aboard a Lummi law enforcement vessel near the U.S. San Juan Islands. Journalists and some Lummi leaders followed in the SoundGuardian research vessel.

Last summer, the Lummi community watched as another whale, a female orca carried its dead calf for 17 days in a dramatic show of grief, which made headlines around the world.

"She was telling us, come and help me," said Raynell Morris with the Lummi Nation, who was aboard the research vessel.

'Tipping point'

Morris wants NOAA to circumvent its regulatory process to work with Lummi Nation, and permit its people to feed the killer whales.

She believes the poor health of J17 and the death of another young orca last summer is a reminder that the the pod is near extinction. 

Raynell Morris, with the Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office at the Lummi Nation, is calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare a state of emergency and intervene to feed the southern resident killer whales. (CBC )

"As sad as it was, to me, it was the tipping point," Morris said.

But a NOAA spokesperson said there is no provision in U.S. law for the agency to declare a state of emergency when it comes to endangered species. 

NOAA's policy on not feeding endangered species is aimed at protecting the southern resident killer whale population from becoming dependent on humans for food, and hence unable to survive in the wild.

Depleted salmon stock

The Lummi Nation's chairman, Jay Julius, blames the poor state of the orcas on a number of factors including water pollution, captivity, tanker traffic, climate change and over fishing.

The Lummi Nation has also taken a stance against the TransMountain pipeline expansion, saying the potential for additional tanker traffic or a spill could affect the health of the whales.

Julius says the Salish Sea was once rich with salmon, which the orca and the Lummi thrived on, but now the nation is lucky if it gets a couple of days of fishing a season. 

"We don't have much time we are possibly the last generation who can do anything about it, we need to act fast and take action," Julius said. 

Since they are not legally allowed to feed the orcas, the Lummi did a spiritual offering for them in hopes their prayers would reach those who can protect the orcas.

Elders and leaders with the Lummi nation hold a ceremony, praying for the protection of the Salish Sea and a revival of salmon stocks. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

'How can we fix it?'

On Henry Island, just northwest of San Juan Island, elders built a large fire and prayed for the salmon and the orcas. They then boarded a law enforcement vessel and released a single Chinook salmon into the water while singing and praying. 

Tony Hillaire, a 31-year old chief of staff at the Lummi Business Council, said he believes the ceremony will help protect the Salish Sea and strengthen the southern resident killer whale population.

Tony Hillaire works with the Lummi Nation's Business Council and says he believes the ceremony as well as international pressure on governments will help to protect the endangered southern resident killer whale population. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

He also says members of the media were invited to attend the ceremony to bring awareness to the world about how important the endangered orcas are to the Lummi. 

"We have to ask ourselves have did we get here, and we have to figure out together, because together we are stronger, how can we fix it?" Hillaire said.

He says this is just one of many ceremonies to come.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?