Lanni Johnson sitting in front of the Capitol building steps where she has been on a hunger strike for the last nine days to save the Southern Resident Orcas. Johnson is joined by supporter, Phil Myers, who can be seen in an orca onesie. COURTESY PHOTO, Emma Epperly, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Lanni Johnson sitting in front of the Capitol building steps where she has been on a hunger strike for the last nine days to save the Southern Resident Orcas. Johnson is joined by supporter, Phil Myers, who can be seen in an orca onesie. COURTESY PHOTO, Emma Epperly, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Woman on 17-day fast to spotlight orcas’ plight

  • Thursday, April 11, 2019 9:46am
  • Opinion

At nearly noon, Lanni Johnson sat in a fold-up beach chair in the chilly shade of the state Capitol dome with no intention of relocating a few feet to where the midday sun offered a respite of warmth.

It’ll get here, she said of the approaching sunlight.

She had patience. Plus, the 71-year-old Snohomish woman wanted to save every ounce of energy.

This was Tuesday, the ninth of a planned 17-day fast at the legislative building. It’s a solo protest at the epicenter of the state’s political power on behalf of the Southern Resident orcas. She wants elected state and federal officials to do something significant to reroute the state’s official marine mammal off the path to extinction.

For her, what’s under discussion — like boosting hatcheries of Chinook salmon and curbing vessel traffic — will take too long to make a difference.

She wants the likes of Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, her representative in Congress, to publicly embrace removing four dams from the lower Snake River.

This is the fastest way to get more salmon to orcas and reduce the threat of any dying from starvation, she said. It’s controversial and unclear if they could make it happen if they wanted to do so. Johnson would be happy to hear them say aloud they want to try.

“They’ll do anything but breaching the dams,” she said. “If we don’t get salmon to those whales in the next four to five years, they’re gone. If that’s OK, then spin your wheels.”

Johnson is a relative newcomer to this political dialogue. The 31-year resident of Snohomish has never seen an orca in the wild.

She became vigorously aware of their plight a couple years back after watching Blackfish, a documentary about the tribulations of Tilikum, the 6-ton killer whale that took the life of its SeaWorld trainer.

“I grieved. It made a huge impact on me,” she said.

Last summer’s wrenching coverage of orca mother J35, aka Tahlequah, pushing the corpse of her newborn through ocean waters for two-plus weeks solidified Johnson’s resolve to fight for the species’survival.

She began a water and salt-only diet April 1. She aims to last 17 days, which is how long she says Tahlequah carried her dead calf.

Johnson arrives in mid-morning and settles into her small chair until mid-afternoon. Some days she has camped out at the base of the steps on the Capitol’s north side. On Wednesday, the 10th day, she planned to be inside the domed structure.

“I’ve got a permit,” she said.

She doesn’t rant or rave or call out to passersby. There’s no large banner adorned with a political slogan above her head, only a small whiteboard on which she tracks the days of her fast that she props up with her knees.

She’s easy to overlook. Except when an ally like Phil Myers of Port Townsend shows up dressed like a whale to keep her company and an eye on her health. He’s a member of the North Olympic Orca Pod activist group, which has pressed politicians to do more for orcas for several years.

Inslee hasn’t ignored orcas. He established a task force which drew up a blueprint of action for the state. When Inslee rolled out his budget plan in December, it spent roughly a billion dollars on direct and in direct steps to ensure a better future for killer whales.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures. It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state,” Inslee said in a statement issued upon release of the spending plan. “We need to restore the ecosystem to one that sustains orcas, salmon and the quality of life for all Washingtonians.”

At the time, he acknowledged many people want the dams breached. As he noted then, the dams do support irrigation for agriculture, recreation, barge traffic, hydropower generation and fish hatcheries. He wants to bring all interested parties to the table to examine the ramifications, good and bad, of options, not just removing the dams.

Johnson scoffed at the approach. It will take too long to reach any conclusion, she said.

Orcas are running out of time, and she’s running out of patience.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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