NEAH BAY (Sept. 23, 2008)–Ariela Rascon, scrunches up her nose at the smell emanating from the river otter she is about to cut open, but confidently proceeds to slice its stomach open anyway.
The 18-year-old Makah tribal member is learning to perform a necropsy or animal autopsy to determine the cause of death as part of the tribe’s summer youth program. Students learn about various natural resource jobs within the tribe by job-shadowing employees and performing some of the same tasks. “I like the program,” said Rascon. “It’s interesting and I’ve learned a lot.”
While Rascon is dealing with a river otter, two other Makah tribal students are performing a necropsy on a harbor porpoise and a harbor seal.
The animals were found washed up on the beaches near Neah Bay. Jonathan Scordino, Marine mammal biologist for the tribe, stores them in a freezer until the necropsy can be performed. When possible, Scordino performs the necropsies and submits the results to the relevant state or federal agency. The students performed their work under the supervision of both Scordino and Pat Gearin, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s National Marine Mammal Lab.
“It’s common to find harbor seal pups who haven’t figured out how to find food,” Gearin told Dominick DeBari, 18, and Ernie Grimes, 21. “Mothers leave them to fend for themselves at 5 months.” Gearin pointed out that the thin layer of blubber on the pup that DeBari had cut open. “That’s a sign of not getting enough food,” said Gearin. DeBari said he enjoyed doing the necropsies, noting he’s always been interested in human autopsies depicted on the T.V. show “House.”
Maria Pascua, Makah cultural consultant, was on hand to explain some of the uses and Makah names of the mammals. “The Makah word for dolphin means split tail,” said Pascua. She noted that the stomach of the otter was often used as a storage bag after being dried; otter teeth were used to decorate regalia. Seal skins were used as containers for seal oil as well as floats for whaling after they were dried and inflated.
As part of their work, Scordino had the students read the Environmental Impact Statement on the tribe’s request for an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue their treaty right to whale. Students performed a wide range of other tasks like helping collect water quality samples and answering the phone for the fisheries department.
All three students, who are attending college this fall, found the youth program experience valuable regardless of their final educational path. “I like the work. Doing these (necropsies) is the highlight of the summer,” said Grimes. “I’ve participated in the past working for fisheries and it’s something I could see myself doing for a job.”
“We started this program five years ago when we as a staff talked about the need to promote fisheries and natural resources management to the next generation,” said Russ Svec, fishery manager for the Makah Tribe. “We hope to not only spark student interest in fisheries management, but through their experience, promote a better understanding of our native culture and environment.
We want to connect them to those stories our elders told us, to create the passion about what we have and to protect it for tomorrow.”
For more information, contact: Russ Svec, Fishery Manager, Makah Tribe – (360) 645-3156; Jonathan Scordino, Marine Mammal Biologist, Makah Tribe – (360) 645-3176; Debbie Preston – Coastal Information Officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commisson – (360) 374-5501