President’s daughters ‘adopt’ orca

Gary Weiss has witnessed first-hand how having friends in high places can help further an important cause.

Gary Weiss has witnessed first-hand how having friends in high places can help further an important cause.

And that’s a big reason why the photographs of two Southern resident killer whales are likely tacked up on a wall somewhere in the White House by now, or perhaps on the refrigerator.

The daughters of the First Family of the United States, Malia and Sasha Obama, recently became united with two members of J-pod through the Friday Harbor Whale Museum’s Orca Adoption Program. Dr. Weiss presented a pair of adoption certificates and accompanying memorabilia to the president as gifts for his daughters at a May 27 roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C.

The gifts are intended to help raise the profile of the plight of the Southern residents and underscore how breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River is the swiftest course of action to provide the endangered population with a greater abundance of food, Chinook salmon in particular, Weiss said.

“I wouldn’t say it had really been on his radar before,” he said of the president’s familiarity with issues related to salmon and the Snake River dams. “But he did seem very interested and there is a sense that it’s something he might be able to do through an executive order.”

Customized and enhanced by local orca whale advocate Monika Wieland, the “adoption papers” are tailor-made for both girls. The two adoptees, both females, share the same birth year with each girl, respectively. Seventeen-year-old Malia’s adoptive killer whale is J-35, born in 1998, and 14-year-old Sasha’s is J-17, born in 2001.

A neurologist by profession, father of a marine mammal researcher, himself a former Whale Museum intern, and a cousin of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., Weiss also made a pitch to the president as to why those four dams should be breached. He was one of 25 participants at the roundtable and, in addition to providing the president with a 13-page packet summing up the reasons why the dams should be dismantled, he was first to raise his hand and be called upon to state his case.

“[Obama] said that he couldn’t really guarantee any results but that he would give the issue a serious look and see what he might be able to do,” Weiss said.

Listed endangered under the federal law in 2005, the Southern residents consisted at that time of 88 animals. Made up of three closely related clans, J, K and L pods, the population totals 80 whales today. It hit a 30-year low late last year after a two-plus year drought of newborns, followed more recently by three births over the winter months.

Under a federally mandated recovery plan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tasked with implementing the Endangered Species Act, lists lack of prey (salmon), pollution and disturbance by vessels as the three greatest threats to the Southern residents’ survival. The population earned a recent distinction by becoming one of seven other ESA-listed marine species considered by NOAA to be the most “imperiled of the imperiled.”

The idea of presenting the president with orca adoptions took flight at a marine mammal conference last year in Baja, Mexico, where Weiss met up with supporters of the locally based Southern Resident Killer Whales Chinook Salmon Initiative. The group has collected thousands of signatures in a few short months on a petition calling for the dismantling of the four Lower Snake River dams, a course of action meant to boost the imperiled orcas primary food source, chinook salmon.