Ocean Advocates: Learning from Luna

Ocean Advocates
Fred Felleman, MSc.
March 14, 2006

So many people contributed time and resources on the lone orca (L98) Luna’s behalf that his loss is widely felt. As a whale biologist and photographer I have tried to minimize the impact of my presence on my focus of study and have only encouraged intervening with nature during a few extraordinary circumstances. This was one of them.

When whales strand themselves, people make heroic efforts to guide them back into the water. The stranding of the Transient orcas on Dungeness Spit was one such successful occasion. When Springer (A73) was found sick in the Vashon ferry lanes, the public rallied for her successful reunion with her family to Johnstone Strait.

It is easy to point fingers for why we were not able to afford Luna a similar opportunity, but the following insights are simply offered to try to make sense of some hard lessons. There was disagreement between the various official and unofficial trustees of Luna as to whether to intervene on his behalf in the first place. While Canadian Fisheries officials (DFO) came to Washington with great interest in Springer’s precarious position in Puget Sound, they initially kept Luna’s solitary existence in Nootka Sound a secret. Once the word was out there was still disagreement as to what to do about him.

The successful repatriation of Springer included the positive engagement of the Namgis First Nation welcoming her back to native waters. Unfortunately, due to a long simmering conflict between DFO and First Nations in Nootka Sound over the sighting of salmon pens and treaty negotiations, such communications were not forthcoming. In fact, I was in contact with Chief Maquinna through an introduction afforded me by his Makah cousins before DFO contacted him about what they intended to do about Luna. During my meeting with the hereditary chief at his campsite on Friendly Cove overlooking the Pacific, he made it clear that any efforts to reunite Luna with his family should be done in a way that afforded the whale the ability to swim freely and that he not end up in an aquarium. While he favored “letting nature take its course” he expressed a willingness to allow Luna to follow a boat out of Nootka Sound to reunite with his family.

There were many potential benefits associated with giving Luna such a chance in addition to those to him personally. Returning a whale to the endangered southern resident community was one given the potential for Luna’s disappearance being associated with an inexperienced mother and his obvious capability of meeting his own physical needs. Alternatively there was the possibility that he was intentionally abandoned and that we were simply watching the “hostile forces of nature” at work. However, after 30 years of study, such behavior had not been observed before and we could only offer the opportunity for reunion, the rest was up to the whales.

There was the protection to the boating public in Nootka Sound. However, NMFS officials expressed concern that we would be bringing the problem to Washington waters rather than assume the whale would prefer his kin over people. They required that a satellite tag be bolted through his fin as if he would be hard to find if he continued making mischief with boats. While the tag posed potential physical impacts to Luna, it also required that he be kept in a net pen for extended periods while he was fitted. Such excessive handling of Luna and holding a healthy whale captive for over two weeks was a major source of antagonism to Chief Maquinna and many in the environmental community. It was important to draw a blood sample to verify that he did not pose a health risk to his family, but it was hoped that could have been done while Luna was still free swimming giving his inclination to approach boats.

In preparing to lead Luna out of Nootka Sound efforts were redoubled to try to track the fall to spring movements of L Pod which was a goal of the NMFS orca recovery efforts. The US Navy even provided several sightings of orcas along Vancouver Island. Extraordinary efforts were made to acoustically monitor Luna’s calls that streamed briefly on the web. It was also hoped that having a joint “project” would help DFO and NMFS put down some of their professional differences while rallying to Luna’s assistance. There was also the potential for the whale huggers and the aquarium industry to work together after so many years of distrust over the early capture operations. Unfortunately, documents surfaced indicating that the aquarium industry had agreed to undertake the reunion efforts for DFO as long as they had the first dibs on Luna if he did not successfully repatriate. This opened the door for the appearance of conflicts of interest and questions were being asked about who makes the determination as to whether the reunion was a success and if Luna had to be captured.

Whether you preferred a “hard capture” or a “boat follow” it appears that DFO would have been better off starting with the less invasive approach as a show of good faith to the First Nations that they were willing to try working with their concerns. Considering such an approach after being thwarted from their preferred alternative by the First Nations only seemed to embolden their distrust. If First Nations were asked to help lead Luna out prior to their demonstrated ability to engage him with their canoe to thwart the capture, perhaps DFO would have opened a working relationship that could have resulted in a less tragic outcome.

The most important lesson to learn is that while we admire the intelligence and prowess of orca, they are vulnerable mammals just like us and we all make mistakes. Luna’s plight can be broadly blamed on a failure of governance. DFO did not have the benefit of the Prescott stranding funds that were used by NMFS to help Springer and NMFS was restricted to only using those monies in US waters. Instead DFO was reliant on the aquarium industry to manage Luna and their vets were more comfortable treating Luna as a patient than a wild whale. Underlying all this was the strained relations between DFO and First Nations. While they did establish a science advisory panel to receive input from representatives on both sides of the border, it was clear their input was not fully embraced.

Managing an endangered population of free-swimming, large brained mammals across an international border is not an easy task. Add to that the complexity associated with the co-management authority Treaty Tribes have in the United States and is being sought by First Nations in Canada. Such challenges exist in the management of salmon and halibut as well as in the operation of ships passing through our shared waters. However, unlike the management of our orca, the management of these other resources is not left to ad hoc advisory committees, but to international treaties.

Given that no one government or person can lay claim to Luna, his family, or the marine environment, it is time that elected officials from both sides of the border call for the creation of an Orca Commission. The Commission should be comprised of researchers, bureaucrats, tribes, environmentalists and elected officials to address the ongoing challenges associated with bilaterally managing our totem orca population. In this way Luna may live on to help us all be better stewards.

Fred Felleman is a whale biologist and photographer. He is the NW Director of Ocean Advocates and former Board Member of Orca Conservancy

By Fred Felleman, MSc.
Ocean Advocates
Seattle, WA

~ by fredfelleman on March 18, 2006.

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