Lummi Nation wants to feed endangered southern resident orcas

SEATTLE -- Following news that two more southern resident orcas are struggling, one Washington tribe is calling on the federal government to help physically feed them.

Lummi Nation calls the southern resident orcas qwe 'lhol mechen, which means our relatives under the water. They say they have a sacred obligation to take care of them and feed them like they would any other member of their family.

"When you know they're starving, you feed them," said Raynell Morris, senior policy adviser for Lummi Nation's Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office.

On Friday, NOAA sounded the alarm over the health of J-pod matriarch J17, known as Princess Angeline. Her body condition has further declined since scientists first noted the problem last September. Now, her youngest daughter, J53, or Kiki, is also struggling.

Endangered orca J17's health is getting far worse. Drone images show just how bad her health has declined, even since NOAA sounded the alarm in September 2018.

"We don't need to wait until she gets a peanut head," Morris said of J17. "We don't need to wait until she's unable to travel with her pod and then attempt to medicate her and feed her. We know what needs to be done now."

NOAA said they have no plans to medically intervene with J17 at this time and are taking a wait-and-see approach. Lynne Barre said they are optimistic fisheries closures this summer and new vessel regulations could help the southern residents get more food this summer.

Still, researchers are prepared to take breath and fecal samples when the southern residents come back into the Salish Sea.

"While we understand NOAA's desire to gather additional information, we also know that the qwe 'lhol mechen need food right now," reads a statement from Lummi Nation. "We call upon NOAA to work with Lummi Nation and other partners to provide emergency relief and to come up with a sustainable, long-term plan for qwe 'lhol mechen survival."

Lummi Nation has performed multiple sacred ceremonial feedings to the orcas, including one Q13 was invited to witness. However, Morris said that while the ceremonial feedings and sacred ceremonies feed the spirit of the orcas and the tribal members, the level of starvation seen in the population is telling the tribe they need to go beyond ceremony.

Details are still in the works, but Morris said they are developing a pilot program to immediately provide Chinook salmon to the southern residents through chutes on the boat. Lummi Nation operates hatcheries and is also encouraging a greater collaboration to boost production.

The Lummis, in partnership with NOAA, did attempt live feeding for the struggling orca calf J50 last summer to orally deliver medicine, but there was no evidence the orca ate the salmon. J50 died later that summer, severely emaciated.

While NOAA was on board with permitting that action last year, the Lummis are looking do to something far more substantial this time around.

NOAA has not said if the federal government would support it, look the other way or try to stop it -- it is technically illegal to feed marine mammals in the wild. On NOAA's website, it talks about the dangers of wildlife correlating boats with food as a primary reason for the rule.

Still, tribes are in a unique position as co-managers of the land and native species and they say they're willing to do everything physically and spiritually to feed the orcas, all the while advocating for a more sustainable long-term plan to provide more food.

Updated May 22, 2019: Following our story, NOAA asked Lummi Nation for a meeting to better understand and discuss the tribe's plans.