North Olympic Orca Pod stages ‘die in’

Lily Haight lhaight@ptleader.com
Posted 10/23/18

Local members of the North Olympic Orca Pod activist group staged a “die-in” protest at the governor’s Orca Task Force meeting Oct. 18 at the Landmark Convention Center in Tacoma. Three Port …

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North Olympic Orca Pod stages ‘die in’

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Local members of the North Olympic Orca Pod activist group staged a “die-in” protest at the governor’s Orca Task Force meeting Oct. 18 at the Landmark Convention Center in Tacoma. 

Three Port Townsend activists lay on the ground wearing Orca costumes during the meeting after members of the Orca Task Force announced they would not make a decision yet on the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams, which could help restore salmon habitat. 

“The ‘die-in’ was to show that we are literally dead if nothing is done immediately to breach the four lower Snake River dams, since it is critical to getting the wild salmon back, which is their only food source,” said Grace Wright, a member of the North Olympic Orca Pod. 

Wright, Debra Ellers and Phil Meyers are members of the North Olympic Orca Pod, a group of activists who dress up like whales and take on the identity of whales in the Southern Resident Orca Whale pods. Ellers is orca L25, named Ocean Sun, Wright is J22, named Oreo, and Meyers is K26, named Lobo. 

The three activists staged their “die in” on the floor near where the task force members deliberated toward the end of the meeting. Jesse Nightwalker, from the Palouse tribe, circled the “dead” orcas, playing a drum and singing a song of mourning for the orcas.

“We decided that if the task force made a poor recommendation or no recommendation to breach the Lower Snake River dams, then we would do a ‘die in,’” Ellers said, addingshe was disappointed by the efforts of the task force. “They keep saying that they need to take bold action, but I haven’t seen them actually move to take bold action yet.”

According to Ellers, if the task force had made a decision to look into breaching the dams, the orca activists would have gone around the task force table, celebrating and giving high-fives. 

“It was very spontaneous,” Ellers said. “There was a Palouse chief who did a ceremony for us as we were lying there, expressing the sorrow for the orcas in song, and that was really touching.”

The two-day task force meeting included discussion on public comments received on a report the task force drafted that includes recommendations to help the population of the Southern Resident Orca Whales, including increasing salmon habitat, reducing barge noise in the Puget Sound, and looking into hydropower dams and their effects on salmon populations. 

The draft report was released Sept. 24, just three weeks after resident orca J50 was announced missing and presumed dead, and just as NOAA researches announced another whale, K27, to be documented in “notably poorer body condition compared to recent years.” 

Since the death of J50, there are now only 74 Southern Resident Orca Whales left. 

Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb also spoke during the task force meeting, highlighting the need to act immediately in regard to breaching the Lower Snake River dams. 

“I’m saying we don’t have time,” Balcomb said. “Move as quickly as possible to find out who has the authority (to breach the dams). We already know all the other answers. … The facts are there; let’s look at them.”

Meanwhile, members of the organization Dam Sense, which calls for the removal of the Lower Snake River dams, spoke during the public comment period and brought forward a petition that has gained hundreds of thousands of signatures since the death of J50. 

“I’m here on behalf of the 628,987 that as of this morning had signed our petition urging Gov. Inslee to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake River,” said Monika Weiland Shields, of Dam Sense. “While Gov. Inslee doesn’t have the authority to order it himself, he could be a game changer for the southern residents with a stroke of his pen by signing a statement of support for breaching the dams on the Lower Snake River.” 

Still, other members of the task force spoke in favor of the dams and the role they play in the economy of Eastern Washington. 

“Those dams are vital to Eastern Washington. They’re vital to transportation. They’re vital to get the farm to market, our products that need to go out,” said Gary Chandler, vice president of government affairs for the Association of Washington Business. “We are the most heavily dependent state on shipping out agricultural products on the Columbia River, and the barging system is a major part of that.” 

Other issues brought up were the restoration efforts that would need to take place after breaching the dams and the level of sedimentation in the river from the dams. The task force decided that more study would be needed before making a decision on breaching the dams. 

“I was very disappointed that the task force was still bogged down in political agenda,” Wright said. “No one seemed to want to step out of their comfort zone and follow the advice of the experts on salmon/orca recovery. It was easier to suggest more studies be done.” 

The orca task force will meet again Nov. 6 in Tacoma to finalize its recommendations for its first year of work to help the Southern Resident Orca populations. The task force will make its final recommendations by Nov. 16. 

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