Environmental groups, indigenous tribal members, wildlife advocates and others held a memorial ceremony and protest on Friday afternoon following the deaths of two young killer whales of uncertain causes off the coast of Washington.
The demonstration followed the death this month of an emaciated three-year-old southern resident killer whale named Scarlet, or J50, and the July death of a newborn calf from the same family group. The animals were members of a critically endangered whale community resident to the Salish Sea, which now numbers just 74 animals.
More than 300 people gathered at Occidental Square in downtown Seattle during the peak of the protest, according to Chiara Rose, an organizer with the Endangered Species Coalition, which spearheaded the event. Attendees were asked to wear black and white to “show love” for the beleaguered killer whales.
Rose said the theme of the day was “first we mourn, then we organize.”
Proceedings began with speeches, prayers and songs of grief and healing, Rose said, with participation from members of the Duwamish, Lummi, Kalispel, Suquamish, and other tribes. The mood was described as solemn, and many people were moved to tears.
Later, protesters marched to the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, which houses federal offices including the U.S. District Court, the Treasury Department and the Coast Guard.
Rose said that the demonstrators’ demands were multiple, but a focus was placed on persuading elected officials to act on the Lower Snake River Dams. Many blame the dams, which were built in the 60s and 70s, for depleting salmon resources in the Pacific Northwest.
“Contaminants, lack of prey and underwater noise – all three of those are factors” that contribute to endangering killer whales in the region, Rose said. “Our primary ask is for elected leaders to prioritize dam breaching, and to ask the Army Corps [of Engineers] to pursue alternatives.”
According to the Northwest Energy Coalition, the dams generate enough electricity to power a major city, but they have been the subject of controversy and numerous lawsuits spanning decades. A 2016 NOAA report showed that following the dams’ construction the region saw a precipitous decline in the abundance of wild Chinook salmon, a major food source for southern resident orcas.
NOAA says hatchery-raised fish have helped increase the Chinook supply.
In a major step for environmental groups, wildlife defenders and other dam opponents, in 2017 a federal judge ordered government agencies to increase spilled water from the dams, and for dam managers to consider major changes to the network, citing endangered salmon and steelhead species that continued “in a perilous state.”
But in April, the U.S. House passed a bill in response to the ruling that would prevent any changes to operations of the dam network until 2022. The bill was sponsored by Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Spokane) and is currently awaiting action in the Senate.
Rose said the Endangered Species Coalition and other groups would continue to lobby state and federal representatives for serious reform of the dam network and other measures. She cited a lack of successful Orca births in recent years and reports that at least one member of K-pod, another southern resident family group, is currently struggling to survive.
“We have to acknowledge that we have a much bigger problem on our hands,” she said.