Our responsibility to the Southern Resident killer whales: An interview with Cecilia Gobin

Lisa J. Watt

Lisa J. Watt

Indigenous Leadership Program Director

A killer whale porpoising out of the water by Lisa Skelton.

Only 73 Southern Resident killer whales remain in the Salish Sea. In response, the Southern Resident Orca Task Force was formed, of which Cecilia Gobin (Tulalip) is a member. Ecotrust’s Lisa Watt, Doe Hatfield, and Emilie Chen had the chance to speak with Cecilia about her longstanding commitment to this work, her observations through the orca task force, and the stories that demonstrate the line of relation between Native people and the beings she is working to protect.

In August 2018, the plight of Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea became known throughout the world: Footage of a mourning 20-year-old female, Tahlequah, showed her carrying her deceased calf for 17 days over 1,000 miles. And earlier this year, three more killer whales were presumed deceased. Today, only 73 of these majestic beings are left in the Salish Sea.

These killer whales—also known as orcas—are in crisis. Reduced salmon stocks (especially Chinook), industrial toxins, and vessel disturbance—all issues that are man-made—have threatened the Southern Residents’ very existence in their home waters. In spring 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee created the Southern Resident Orca Task Force to make recommendations that “will improve conditions [for the orcas] in the short run while improving the basis for long-term recovery….” The final report was issued in November 2018.

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Conservation Policy Analyst Cecilia Gobin (Tulalip) has committed her career to protecting treaty rights and salmon and the ecosystems that surround them. We welcomed the opportunity to speak with Cecilia.

Welcome Cecilia. Tell us about the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission is made up of the 20 treaty tribes in western Washington that have treaty hunting and fishing rights reserved under the Stevens Treaty of 1854 and 1855. The commission was established in 1974 after the Boldt decision (U.S. v Washington) was handed down, where the question of treaty rights was adjudicated, and reaffirmed that the tribes have the right to fish as reserved under the treaties. The ruling also recognized tribes as natural resources co-managers together with the State of Washington and have a right to an equal share of the harvestable number of salmon returning annually.

The commission was created to provide technical support to tribal staff of the 20 tribes in fisheries management and habitat issues. We still provide support and staffing in this area, but nowadays, we do a lot of policy work and help the tribes elevate and advance policy issues that are critical to saving treaty rights, working to protecting resources and habitats, from salmon and shellfish issues, to marine mammal recovery and management issues as well.

Specifically, I work in the habitat division of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (NWIFC) as a conservation policy analyst. My focus area is salmon recovery issues, how they intersect with treaty rights, and the meaningful use and exercise of treaty rights associated with that. I also work closely with our fisheries management division and assist in some of the marine mammal work, specifically the Southern Resident killer whale and pinniped management issues. Most recently, I’ve been participating on and helping staff tribes on the Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.


To me, this is just a powerful story because I don’t think people really understand when we say these orcas are our relations. This is our family. This is our blood.

—Cecilia Gobin

Was the Southern Resident orca issue new to you? Or have you been following it over the years?
I’ve always had an interest and been aware of the orcas. Coming from my tribe, Tulalip, we have a long history and relationship with them. When it became the crisis that it has become, I just happened to be in a place in my professional career where I am able to help. I knew that some of our fisheries management staff were also going to be involved from different angles, but we knew somebody was going to have to respond or track this, so I volunteered to help.
In our first conversation, we talked about tribes around the Salish Sea having stories about orcas. The Lummis refer to orcas as Qwe Lhol Mechen or “people that live under the water,” and they recognize orcas as their relatives. Do the Tulalip people have similar stories?

We do. Similar to Lummi, we believe that there are different tribes or people that live under the water. For example, there are the Salmon People and the Black Fish, “the orca.” Our elders have always referred to them as beings. When we see them, they look like the killer whale or salmon, but when they go back to their respective villages under the water, they take off those cloaks, and they’re just like us. There are people walking around under there. That’s why you hear us refer to them as the Salmon People or the people who live under the water.

For Tulalip, we have many stories. The one that has stayed with me is the story of two seal-hunting brothers that had gone out to hunt. The brothers came from a Snohomish village at Priest Point, and they were known to be great hunters. One day, however, out of jealousy, a man created a cursed seal out of a log. This cursed seal towed the brothers out to sea for days, until it finally broke free. But the brothers could not find their way back home. As they were about to give up hope, they were transformed into killer whales and were able to return back home and avenge the trickery cast upon them.

A long while later, our villages were experiencing great famine, and we couldn’t fish. There were so many seals in the water that they were decimating the fish runs, and our people were starving. The Black Fish—the brothers—and their other killer whale descendants—returned to our villages and threw the seals up onto the beach, not just to feed the people, but also to drive out the seals and manage that pressure the seals were putting on the salmon runs so that things could return to balance.

The story and the timeline of that story are unique because they allow people outside of our community to understand that when we say these beings are our relatives, they truly are. They are our family. It is not a mystic or romanticized connection. These were two men from our villages who were turned into Black Fish but maintain that connection to us; whether it was to help feed the people or to come back every year to feed their own needs. To me, this is just a powerful story because I don’t think people really understand when we say these orcas are our relations. This is our family. This is our blood.

What do our traditional teachings tell us about our responsibility to orcas, salmon, and all living things?

When you see these beings—the orcas, they are captivating. They give you a sense of awe. For me, to take care of them is a gift. To be entrusted with a responsibility so great says a lot about us and who we ought to be—it is a privilege. As a result, in inheriting and accepting a responsibility like that, you fight for it, regardless, and you protect it. These beings—they mean so much to us, not just for sustenance or fulfilling that physical need and nourishment. They’re integral to our ceremonial ways of life, our spirituality, our understanding and connection to this place, the things that we do on the landscape, how we relate to one another, whether we’re on the land or on the water. As such, we must fight for them and protect them, and protect them not just for today and tomorrow, but for the future, for those grandchildren, for those generations that are coming behind us. I think that rings true in non-tribal society as well. We’re not the only ones that need and live off the water or the land. Everybody does.

We need to remember that we have a responsibility. Whether it’s fish, or orcas, or berries, or elk, we’re not just here to use. We are here to protect them and use them in a way that is sustainable.

It was reported that the orcas did not return to the Salish Sea in May and June of this year. They found food in other places but then they finally appeared. And then it was reported that, as of July 1st, three adult orcas were missing and presumed dead, leaving the population at 73. What was your reaction when you heard this news?

It was upsetting to hear that because it felt like we lost family. And it’s frustrating that a lot of folks—tribes and non-tribal communities and interest groups alike—are calling for and willing and ready to take action but there are a lot of politics. We fight so hard to do the right thing, but we just end up fighting ourselves and losing. We can’t get around talking about a dime here and a dollar there. We already know what we must do, we just have to choose to do it. We’re out of time, and we’re out of easy answers and quick fixes. This is about making those hard decisions, tackling the most difficult tasks together—we’ve done all the easy things. What’s left is the hard work, and we need to be meeting that head-on. If we’re serious about not just paying lip service, if we’re serious about what we’re saying, it means we must start putting it into practice.

Eleven Washington tribes were members of the Southern Resident Orca Task Force and you were the commission’s representative. What was that like, for you as a Native woman?

There were some good things that came out of that first year of work. From a tribal perspective, there was a lot of frustration because it felt like we were having conversations that we’ve always had and still not getting anywhere. And for me personally, it was frustrating because people kept wanting to focus on the harvest aspect of things, not realizing that in the last 30 years, tribal and non-tribal harvest has been reduced by 90% or more over the decades. Not to mention that the fisheries are well managed between the tribes and the state and even internationally, between the U.S. and Canada with the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Fishing is not the issue here. Even if we were to stop fishing, that’s not going to save the orcas or the salmon. It’s like a burning house—just because you leave a burning house doesn’t mean the house is going to stop burning.

We have to start looking at the habitat aspects, water quality and quantity needs, protecting and restoring and rebuilding habitats and functioning, resilient ecosystems that have the capacity to support treaty resources—salmon, shellfish, orca, forage fish—the list goes on. Ultimately, it is about making sure that we’re building and rebuilding the habitat and the ecosystem and cleaning up the waterways so that not just the orca, but also the salmon that they rely on, have a place, a home to come back to, a place to regenerate.

We know some of the hard solutions that we have to do, but people are unwilling to go that far because it’s uncomfortable, it means making a sacrifice, or it’s going to take more time. But if we’re serious about saving this place—whether it’s the salmon, the orca, or just ourselves—we have to change something in the bigger picture. And that takes everybody. It doesn’t fall on the backs of the tribes or fishermen. It takes everyone to turn this tide.

Salmon recovery and orca recovery are intrinsically linked. You have to do all this salmon work for orca recovery—salmon recovery is orca recovery.

—Cecilia Gobin

The task force’s final report was criticized for not being bold or aggressive enough. Where are the teeth in that final report? What is negotiable?
It’s hard to say. A lot of it goes back to some of the key recommendations on regulation. We as a task force put together the recommendations, but they rely heavily on going back and making fixes, either in legislation, statute, an agency policy, or in budget and funding requests. As a result, I think we placed a lot of responsibility and reliance on the legislature, which has the final say on agency budgets or bills that would expand or help rebuild policy and regulations for agencies to implement. Sometimes, that’s a dangerous place to be because you’re right back into politics, negotiating, or compromising.
Governor Inslee requested $1.1 billion in investments for the next biennium (2019-2021) to help ensure a thriving population. That’s just for two years. If we were to add up the costs of all 36 recommendations to implement the plan, what would be the total price tag? The plan itself is nearly 200 pages long, but I didn’t see a lot of figures.
I don’t know what that number would be, but it would be exponentially larger than what we currently spend on salmon recovery and habitat restoration and protection, which—under current funding regimes—has been historically and chronically underfunded. That’s why we’re seeing such slow progress. In the overall picture, for Chinook recovery, the trend is negative. We’re not seeing the response and positive growth and recovery trends that we need to be seeing. That’s hard to look at, when you consider what has been decided as the appropriate amount to spend on salmon recovery, for example. Salmon recovery and orca recovery are intrinsically linked. You have to do all this salmon work for orca recovery—salmon recovery is orca recovery.
One of the recommendations calls for the creation of a task force to examine the breaching of the four Lower Snake River dams. What do you think is the likelihood that will happen?

The NWIFC has not weighed in on that recommendation, respecting and acknowledging the Columbia River tribes’ sovereignty and authority on that. That is not to say, however, that we do not very clearly understand the benefits of dam removal. Certainly, we have examples among the member tribes of the NWIFC that show the benefits of dam removal, like the Lower Elwha Tribe and the Elwha River dam removal. That was much needed for habitat restoration and salmon recovery in that watershed.

However, my opinion is that I hope that there is serious discussion about breaching the dams and allowing for some of that benefit then to affect and benefit salmon recovery efforts because a lot of the salmon runs coming out of the Columbia River are the runs that are critical the Southern Residents’ winter and early spring feeding.

But I’m skeptical because it is so political, especially in this state, where west-side and east-side politics can be vastly different. I think you’d have a lot of groups—farmers, the agricultural community, the public, but also our Congressional delegation from that side—split on the opinion of, “Do we breach the dams?” They must watch out for their constituencies as well. I understand that and can respect that.

Time lapse of the removal of the Elwha Dam between September 13, 2011 and July 15, 2012. Images courtesy of the National Park Service
Do you think that removing those dams would be the most beneficial thing that can be done to help orcas and salmon? What do you think is the top-level solution?

Removing dams is definitely in the top 10 actions that are needed because of the importance removal plays to salmon recovery, prey availability, and the coastal migration and feeding route of the Southern Residents. I also think there is a lot of habitat work we need to do along the coast and in northern California, as well as habitat work being done in the Salish Sea. There’s a lot of focus on the issue of prey availability, but we also can’t lose focus on some of the other issues affecting the Southern Residents’ ability to reproduce and their general wellbeing. I’m referring to things like the toxins and vessel noise disturbances.

For example, we know there is a link between the bioaccumulation of toxins in Southern Resident killer whales and the affects that has on everything from their nervous system to reproduction, to the transfer of toxins from lactating mothers to their nursing calves, and likely their overall fitness. I mean, how well would you function if you were carrying a bioaccumulated mass of toxins in your body? It’s not rocket science.

In terms of vessel noise and vessel effects, we also know that there is a link between the amount of noise and disturbances from vessels that then affect their hunting ability and ability to locate prey/salmon (by echolocation) and pod communication of Southern Residents. We also know that some of these same disturbances that disrupt their foraging abilities also causes them to exhibit avoidance behaviors—avoiding foraging ground all together, staying underwater longer, and expending more energetic calories than they normally would.

These things are nuanced, but critical in making sure we don’t get tunnel vision in our approach to this recovery. We can’t just say “cut harvest or stop fishing.” It’s all of it—breaching the dams, restoring spawning and rearing habitats in the nearshore and in the bays.

Only 73 orcas are left. Why are we still out there essentially chasing them around? If it was any other species, would we be doing that? Those are some of the questions we must ask ourselves.

I thought—with the focus on the orca mother Tahlequa last year—that things would’ve changed, that people really would’ve come to the table determined to make change.

I think we all hoped for that as well, and in the moment, it certainly stirred up a lot of outcry for change and garnered a lot of public attention and calls for action. And I think everyone was and is well intentioned too. But in one year’s time—exactly one year to the day of Tahlequa’s seemingly public grieved display with her deceased calf—now in 2019, we have the notice that announced the death of 3 more adults, one from each of the pods J, K, and L.

It just really showed, to me, that in a year’s time, we’ve been able to disassociate ourselves from the crisis once again. And here we are, with three more deceased adults. It just begs the question, what are we doing? If we’re not going to do anything about it, then let’s at least be honest about that. Let’s not pretend to be doing something just so we can be seen speaking up, or as a feel-good measure for us, the public. This is life and death for us. This is our way of life. This is our culture. This is our well-being. This is everything. You don’t just focus on fish or whales. There is so much tied to all these things around us—the water, the whales, the fish, the land, the trees. It’s all connected. We have to start acknowledging that more in the work that we do in this region if we really want to be successful.

If the government is not going to be aggressive and with time running out, should we just give up on the idea of Southern Resident killer whales living in the Salish Sea?

My personal and first answer is no. I think if we give up, or if we allow ourselves to give up, that’s the easy out. That’s letting ourselves off the hook. Because if we give up on orca, what are we going to give up on next? Clean water? Drinking water? Edible fish? Healthy shellfish? I think it’s a slippery slope.

Not to be cliché, I really feel like we can’t quit. And I don’t think tribes would easily walk away either. There are underlying issues here that have caused the orcas to get into the crisis they’re in. Giving up on orcas won’t fix those problems. Giving up is not going to fix the contaminant issue and the toxins that flow into the Salish Sea on a daily basis. Giving up is not going to fix the issues that we’re facing in salmon recovery like clean water, adequate stream flows, water temperature. Giving up is not going to fix climate change. Walking away is not an answer.

What can we really do to help the orcas?

We need funding for habitat restoration and all the salmon recovery efforts, and not look for ways to get out of that obligation. The public looks to those in elected positions to make hard decisions and if that means being a little more aggressive—such as, not giving a free pass to big industry in order to better protect water quality or water availability, for example—then leaders should feel that they have the space to do that.

That’s not to say that this will be easy, but there’s a reason why leaders are in the positions that they’re in. It’s because people who voted them in have given them legitimacy and the trust that they’re going to make those hard calls, that they’re going to do the right thing, and that they’re going to be bold and step outside the box and out of the usual way that they’ve done business.

Above all, I think what leadership can do—to really ensure that we’re protecting things like the Southern Resident orca or the salmon, or that we are protecting the Salish Sea—is to start thinking about these things—the water, the fish, the shellfish, the orca—as part of their constituency as much as humans are.

Thank you, Cecilia.


Ariel image showing the outlines of a salmon farming operation at a distance such that the boats and gates are like drawing lines


Tribes around the Puget Sound have long objected to Atlantic salmon being farmed in the Salish Sea. An incident last August shows us why.

Close-up of cooked mussels and clams open and ready to enjoy


Stephanie Gutierrez and David Diaz drove to the Swinomish Reservation this past week to partake in a traditional clambake

Salmon that have returned for breeding can be seen as smudges of red in a green river. Trees line the opposite shore of the river.


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