This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
On a sunny morning in late August, members of the Lummi Nation travelled to Orcas Island off the Pacific Northwest coast to hold a traditional naming ceremony for a special family of qwe’lhol’mechen, or orcas.
The southern resident killer whales are the top predators of the Salish Sea, the network of waterways between the southwestern coast of British Columbia and the northwest coast of Washington state.
Don’t miss out on the latest news
The Lummi name for orcas means “our relations under the waves,” and this particular population has coexisted with nearby Salish communities for thousands of years.
Now, the three distinct pods of southern resident killer whales have a new Lummi name of their own.
Sk’aliCh’elh, pronounced in English roughly as skah-lee-chuth, affirmed the southern residents as members of the Lummi family. It’s the ancestral Lummi name for the Penn Cove area — just south of Orcas Island — and the place where the last southern resident orca that remains alive in captivity was captured in 1970.
Increasing noise and ocean pollution, boat strikes and plummeting stocks of their primary summer food source (chinook salmon) are driving the decline of the southern residents. If they go extinct, humans go with them, Coast Salish communities say.
“It was in our hearts and in our minds that we connect all of our southern residents together as family,” Lawrence Solomon, secretary for the Lummi Nation, said of the ceremony.
B.C. Green Party MLA Adam Olsen (Saanich North and the Islands) agreed. The wellbeing of the southern residents is an indicator of our own, he told National Observer.
“We’ve fished alongside one another, we’ve raised our offspring with each other and communicated with each other. There’s an ancient relationship of looking after each other,” said Olsen, who is also a member of the Tsartlip First Nation.
Lhaqtemish, or Lummi people, are at the helm of efforts to restore the health of 73 remaining southern residents and ensure the sustainability of the three pods — J, K and L — which use their own distinctive dialect of calls as well as certain shared calls to communicate with each other.
Increasing noise and ocean pollution, boat strikes and, chiefly, plummeting stocks of their primary summer food source, Chinook salmon, are driving the decline of the southern residents. They have been listed as endangered in Canada since 2001 and in the U.S since 2005.
And if the southern residents dwindle to extinction?
“We’re next,” Solomon said.
A mother orca’s message
The first time Nisga’a and Skwxwú7mesh or Squamish Nation member Amanda Nahanee remembers hearing a story about a killer whale was in kindergarten.
“A long time ago, Mink, and his sister, Skunk, planned a big potlatch in our longhouse,” Nahanee said, recalling her first killer-whale story.
“He invited the wolf, deer, caribou, elk, salmon, eagle, raven — even the undersea creatures were invited. Whale was last to arrive. Mink shouted and waved Whale to hurry up. Whale swam fast and launched himself onto land and got stuck in the door. He transformed into a large boulder and trapped everyone inside.”
It was all part of the mink’s plan to get everyone to communicate, Nahanee said. The whale’s role was to make it nearly impossible for them not to talk to one another.
So Nahanee was struck when a mother killer whale and member of J pod was spotted carrying the 400-pound body of her dead calf last summer.
“To see a guardian mourning a child like that was very emotional for me. It reminds me that we are interconnected,” said Nahanee, who previously worked as a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace, tasked with reaching out to coastal First Nations along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and its marine shipping routes in B.C.
The mother whale, known as J35, or Tahlequah, supported the calf’s body with her nose and head for 17 days. She breached the surface of the Salish Sea as though holding up the lifeless calf for the world to see.
In the end, Tahlequah swam more than 1,600 kilometres before the Center for Whale Research reported she was no longer carrying the calf, which had been the first born to J pod in three years.
Tahlequah’s behaviour is unprecedented in recorded history, said Kenneth Balcomb, the founder of the Washington-based centre, who has studied whales for more than 50 years.
Many who followed the story, including Balcomb, felt the mother whale was intentionally delivering a message: protect the Salish Sea or my family will die.
“We’ve seen dead babies on the noses of whales in years past, but it would usually only last a day or two, or less. It was messaging on the part of the whale,” Balcomb said.
“That mom was unwilling to give up an offspring. She’s had several failures before. She’s showing us that these animals don’t have enough food and that they’re going extinct.”
As an Indigenous mother working to feed her family as she was fed, and her ancestors were, on oolichans, shellfish and wild game, Nahanee said she identifies with Tahlequah.
Nahanee’s family usually has a freezer full of salmon. But this year, she received just five fish as gifts from a friend.
This has been an especially difficult year for wild Pacific salmon, federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said on the same day in August that the Lummi Nation named the southern residents Sk’aliCh’elh.
Fisheries and Oceans’ 2019 report on the state of Canadian Pacific salmon points to warming ocean temperatures and marine heat waves, deforestation and increasing sedimentation and landslides — including the massive slide on the Fraser River north of Lillooet, B.C., that’s hampering what is presumed to be hundreds of thousands of fish on their way to spawning grounds — as culprits in salmon species’ decline.
“It’s my job to provide my son with traditional foods, so he can grow up healthy and strong and be connected to his land and culture. I’m finding it very difficult to feed my family traditionally,” Nahanee said.
“I feel her pain.”
From ‘pest’ to endangered icon
The southern residents may have numbered more than 200 prior to the 20th century, according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
But this summer, their population was recorded as 73, and the future of the southern residents lies with an even smaller number of whales.
There is currently one known breeding male, L41, and there are five breeding females among all the southern residents, Balcomb said. He noted there may be other males reaching maturity. But until two new calves were observed this year, no southern resident calf born in the past three years survived.
“If they aren’t having babies, it’s clear that they’re going to go extinct,” Balcomb said.
When an orca calf is actually born, it has around a 50-50 chance of surviving its first year of life.
Prior to 1960, non-Indigenous fishermen in Canada and the U.S. shot dozens of killer whales, which they considered to be pests and competitors for salmon. The Canadian government went as far as to mount a machine gun on Quadra Island, northwest of Campbell River. But concerns over forest-fire risk and ricocheting bullets meant the gun was never fired, according to the Georgia Strait Alliance.
Eventually, attitudes shifted and people’s fascination in killer whales piqued. Between 1965 and 1975, the Center for Whale Research said, at least 13 southern residents were killed during attempted captures for exhibition at marine parks, while more than 40 were successfully captured and delivered to parks worldwide.
Today, only Lolita (also known as Tokitae) remains alive in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. She was captured from L pod in 1970, and this summer, the Lummi renamed her Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut to reflect where she came from. As part of its Salish Sea Campaign, the Lummi Nation is working to repatriate the whale through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and eventually reunite her with her pod.
The other three orca populations in Canadian Pacific waters are classified as threatened, but they number in the hundreds compared to the southern residents. Transient killer whales eat seals and sea lions, which are more prevalent than the southern residents’ prey.
Orca versus oil
It struck many onlookers that by carrying her dead calf, Tahlequah was imploring people to look in the mirror and mitigate the damage human behaviour has wreaked on the southern residents.
And for many people who live along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, the health of the Salish Sea and the southern residents hinges on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
It’s set to nearly triple the capacity of the existing pipeline that stretches more than 1,100 kilometres from Alberta’s oilpatch to the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C., and related tanker traffic is expected to increase from around five to up to 34 vessels a month, according to Trans Mountain.
The pipeline was first approved by the Canadian government in November 2016, and in May 2018, the Canadian government announced its plan to spend $4.5 billion to buy the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and its expansion from Kinder Morgan Canada.
Three months later, in August 2018, the approval of the pipeline was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, which deemed the government’s consultations with Indigenous communities inadequate.
The court further ruled that the National Energy Board — now called the Canada Energy Regulator — unjustifiably excluded the effects of project-related tanker traffic in its review of the pipeline expansion. The judges singled out the energy board’s failure to assess the potential effects of increased tanker traffic on southern resident killer whales and sent the energy regulator back to the drawing board.
In its reconsideration report released in February this year, the energy regulator again recommended that the pipeline expansion project is in Canada’s national interest and should be approved.
But, having now considered the effects of tanker traffic, the same report concluded shipping related to the pipeline expansion is “likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on the southern resident killer whale and on Indigenous cultural use” associated with the whales.
Today, a number of First Nations and Indigenous groups are asserting that Canada failed in its duty to consult once again. In a decision earlier this month, the federal court agreed to hear six of 12 new legal challenges to the federal government’s approval of the pipeline expansion.
In the meantime, construction of Trans Mountain is set to restart along certain segments of the pipeline expansion route.
Lummi Nation seeks ‘government-to-government’ meeting with Canada
In July of this year, Solomon sent a letter to federal Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland asserting that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will result in unavoidable, irreversible and unacceptable harm to the Lummi Nation’s territorial waters.
The letter singles out the effects of increased shipping tanker traffic on southern residents’ fishing areas, along with the dangers of ship strikes, noise pollution and oil spills. It says Canada’s actions constitute a violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and international law prohibiting environmental harm across international boundaries.
“We really want to meet government-to-government to talk about this. If we don’t get to have a government-to-government meeting or sovereign-to-sovereign meeting, we’re prepared to go to the Crown,” Solomon said during an interview with National Observer.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told National Observer in an email that the federal government is currently reviewing the letter from Lummi Nation and “will respond as appropriate.”
“The Government of Canada recognizes the important role of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world in the long-term conservation of the environment, sustainable fisheries and forestry management, and biodiversity conservation,” the spokesperson said, declining to comment further.
“It really makes us feel like we’re not being heard,” Solomon said, noting Lummi Nation has not yet received a response about their concerns about Trans Mountain from the federal government.
The government made a crude political manoeuvre by throwing its weight behind Trans Mountain, Green MLA Adam Olsen said, using the “national interest” as justification for a predominantly economic decision.
“The victim of that was the southern resident killer whales,” Olsen said. He added that it’s not in the national interest to drive the three pods of southern resident orcas to extinction.
“The transients, they come and they go,” he said.
But Coast Salish communities have gotten to know and to name the southern residents.
“They remind us of ourselves, and we see ourselves in them,” Olsen said.
“Their lineages are as sacred as human lineages that are here.”
If we accept their extinction, Olsen said, “then we’re actually, by extension, saying that about ourselves.”
Don’t miss out on the latest news
With files from The Canadian Press