The Warning of the Black Fish
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
THE WARNING OF THE BLACK FISH: Indigenous people of the Salish Sea region, on both sides of the international boundary, testified before the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) last week, explaining how the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project will harm their culture, treaty rights, and way of life.
Four U.S. tribes—the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Tulalip Tribes, the Suquamish Tribe, and Lummi Nation—shared their concerns alongside Canadian First Nations as part of a Canadian federal government review of the proposed pipeline expansion project.
The project involves building a new pipeline along the existing Trans Mountain pipeline route between Edmonton, Alberta, and Burnaby, British Columbia, which will increase the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 barrels to 890,000 barrels per day. The project will also expand the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby to permit it to increase the number of tankers per month it can receive from five to 34. A spur of the project, the Puget Sound Pipeline, crosses into Whatcom County to supply refineries at Cherry Point and Anacortes—with commensurate increase in tanker vessel traffic.
The expansion was shelved, but the Canadian government earlier this year nationalized the pipeline, yielding the project new life.
Earlier this fall, the state Dept. of Ecology received 14,000 public comments concerning the Puget Sound Pipeline. “All opposed the plan’s ability to address a response to heavy oils that are difficult to clean up once spilled,” Ecology commented. “All opposed the lack of details in the plan on species that are endangered and at risk from potential spills, such as the declining populations of southern resident killer whales.”
Ecology estimated such a spill of tar sands oil could cost the state $10.8 billion and adversely affect 165,000 jobs, based apparently on studies done in 2004. The cost could be much greater.
But “there is no clear basis for this estimate, nor any coherent explanation of what it means,” argues policy analyst Eric de Place. “Only a handful of published cost estimates might have any relevance to the growing risk the region faces, and even these are spotty at best.”
For the southern resident orcas—already under intense threat from a variety of causes, vessel traffic among them—the cost could be extinction.
As recognized indigenous nations, the tribes hold special standing to argue the risks and danger of the project in testimony before Canada’s NEB.
“The interests at stake could not be more vital,” the tribes argued in their briefing. “The U.S. tribes rely on land and resources in the shared waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea and along its shorelines for traditional, commercial, economic and cultural purposes. They have lived, fished, hunted and gathered in this area since time immemorial. Orcas, salmon, shellfish and other marine life play a central role in the tribes’ subsistence, economy, culture, spiritual life and day-to-day existence.
“These resources and continuing traditional activities require a healthy ecosystem, an ecosystem that is not only declining but at dramatically increased risk due to the proliferation of oil tankers plying these waters,” they noted.
An oil-tanker disaster could unleash toxic pollution into a sensitive marine environment that would be catastrophic for struggling southern resident killer whales, which hold great cultural significance for tribes. The project also threatens to violate tribal communities’ treaty-reserved fishing and shell-fishing practices, tribal members argued in their brief.
Each of the four U.S. tribes is a separate sovereign nation with tribal government and authority, reservation lands, and treaty-protected fishing, hunting and gathering rights. Tribal fisheries managers interact and negotiate with other tribes, the state of Washington, the United States government, and international organizations about management of various fisheries, including the Pacific Salmon Commission, an international body that oversees harvest of Fraser River salmon in the U.S. and Canada. They are, in fact, the only independent fishery interest in the United States that holds a unique standing to testify on the health of the Salish Sea in these hearings.
“We don’t recognize the border as a people. We are all one people,” Lummi elder Bill James explained in testimony to the NEB. James is the hereditary chief of Lummi Nation. He spoke alongside Lisa Wilson, Lummi Nation’s natural resource manager in charge of endangered species and oil spill response. “We are all relatives,” he said, “all throughout the Puget Sound area; we are all related to each other. …We relate to the Salish Sea as a family.
“These are very serious decisions,” he acknowledged, “because it is not only going to affect the people. It’s going to affect our plant life, our trees. It’s going to affect our animals, our birds, our fish. But also it is going to affect our water and our air. These things are going have to be taken into consideration. It’s not just a matter of the pipeline. It is going to affect all of these things.
“Different species are already disappearing from our earth, James observed. “Be aware of what’s going on around us. We need to feel their hurt.
“What’s going to happen to this pipeline if a major earthquake hits?” he asked. “We know that is going to happen.
“I listened to the elders come to my home in the fishing village where I was born, and they would tell the story of the black fish, the killer whales, how we came to be related to them, the people that live under the sea. And the black fish people would tell us, ‘You beware. When we die, you’re next.’
“Mother Earth is sacred. And each of us have only one mother.”