The Heart-Aching Orca Letter
This afternoon, scores of heartbroken people in Seattle attended a memorial for three Orca Whales. I was grateful to be among them.
What is happening here? Why are so many of our hearts broken over the death and dying of these animals?
What are they trying to tell us?
"The orcas tell us that they are dying. That they are starving. That they have too many toxins in their bodies. The orcas tell us their waters are too loud. They tell us that their food tastes different and isn't giving them the strength they need. They tell us to wake up. Wake up. They tell us that we are them..."
- from It is Them, Not I - by Chiara Rose
What Chiara spells out in bright flashing letters in her poem is that in some way, every single one of us is responsible for the death and dying of these whales. Just by living in Seattle, I know I am.
The berry farmer blames the dairy farmer who blames the commercial fisherman who blames the tribal fisherman who blames the city dweller who blames ALL the fishermen and the rural dwellers who blame the politicians who blame the lack of the Will of the People. Many of us living near the Salish Sea blame the Lower 4 Snake River Dams - more on that below...
...It is Them, Not I...
There is so much grief and confusion in all of this, it's hard to know what to think or what to do. I categorically DO NOT have all the answers - but after devoting the last seven years of my life stumping
for wild salmon - (orcas' primary food source), I have a few ideas humming louder than others.
eating wild salmon is definitely OK
A lot of friends have asked me lately about whether to continue eating salmon. Some have voluntarily stopped eating Chinook Salmon after some Seattle restaurants and stores have pulled it from their menus and fish counters. That is a totally noble gesture and one that rings true. Orca whales in general and members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) Family in particular (of which J-50, J-35 "Tahlequah" and her deceased calf were a part) target Chinook (King) Salmon because they are fattier and therefore are more bang for their nutritional buck than chasing around the leaner species of salmon.
We are grieving and we are outraged. I understand why anyone would want to do something to help RIGHT NOW and the most immediate-seeming thing to do would be to cut Chinook Salmon from the Salish Sea out of our diets. Don't take a salmon away from a starving whale. Makes perfect sense. And I'm on board with that.
The problem is, when chefs and stores have specifically mentionedpulling CHINOOK Salmon from their shelves and counters, a lot of my friends have heard eating ANY salmon is harmful to these whales. This is not true. In fact, turning people away from sustainably sourced wild salmon only bolsters disease-laden salmon farms which by their very existence are harmful to wild salmon and orcas.
Wild salmon is the healthiest protein on Earth and eating fully sustainable, orca-safe wild salmon from Bristol Bay helps save Bristol Bay from being developed into a mining district. If we demand wild salmon on our plates, we will demand that the wild habitat necessary for wild salmon to survive remains pristine - ie - by using our dollars to express our will, we will not allow the Pebble Mine to be built in Bristol Bay, Alaska - home to the largest fully-intact wild salmon run left on Earth. In the last five years, Bristol Bay has seen 277 million sockeye salmon return to its river systems. Over a quarter-Billion. Its runs are healthy, fully sustainable and still wild - like the runs on the Columbia and Snake Rivers once were before they were dammed then plugged with hatcheries.
Eating orca-safe salmon all comes down to knowing where our food comes from. The map below depicts the range of the SRKW family in the yellow portions of the Salish Sea. (The red depicts the Northern Resident Killer Whale population's range who are thriving due to more access to Chinook in BC and Alaskan waters).
Over near the Bering Sea is a red dot on the map, representing Bristol Bay, Alaska. Bristol Bay is 1500+ miles away from the feeding grounds of the SRKW populations. And this is where 64 million Sockeye returned once again this summer to spawn. Eating salmon from here creates an economic value in these salmon that will save them for future generations.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
un-dam the dammed
The single most critical thing we must do, right now, is breach the Lower 4 Snake River (LSR) Dams. Here's a summary of what's at stake and what must be done to help. Of all things we must do to help the SRKWs, only breaching the LSR dams will immediately increase the wild salmon populations in the Salish Sea and increase the survival of SRKWs. This scientific fact has been all but ignored in the ongoing task force meetings and local media.
This is what author and friend, David James Duncan recently said about Tehlequah's cries after carrying her dead calf for 17 days of inconsolable grief:
Can you see what you have done to my child! My child! My child!
Can you see what you have done to our rivers and seas?
OUR rivers! OUR seas!
Can you see what you are doing to your children and yourselves?
Are you ready to carry your beloved dead as I have done?
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, these Orcas are living icons. If we mean what we say and wish them to stay, this is the single most important issue to lean into - hard. To take immediate action that will immediately make a difference, follow the link below and make your voice heard by calling the numbers of our elected officials and telling them you demand the Lower 4 Snake River Dams be breached, right now.