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Blue whale at surface

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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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Gray whales from drone.

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Those Dammed Salmon

So we’ve covered who the Southern Residents are and why they’re so at risk.  Today, coinciding with the start of our Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed campaign, here’s some more background on the connection between dams, salmon, and orcas; and why we need to start with the rivers to restore the Residents!

What’s the deal with salmon?

Chinook, also known as King salmon, are the largest salmonid species.  They’re like energy bars to the Resident orcas – big, high-calorie, and high-energy prey that give the most bang for their buck.  If an orca is going to spend valuable time and energy chasing down a fish, they want the fish that’s going to give them the highest payoff for their time – Chinook salmon.

However, like the Southern Residents, Chinook salmon stocks are also significantly lower than their historic levels.  Habitat losses from development and dams and overfishing have decimated populations.  Runs with millions of huge fish are now only in the tens of thousands, and their physical size has also decreased as the larger fish have been selectively harvested.  The Chinook are getting smaller, and their populations are mere fractions of what they once were.

The sad story of L pod

Resident orcas are highly social, and live in complex groups determined by matrilineal descent – that means that the mothers (and grandmothers) are in charge.  Offspring stay in their mom’s family groups for their entire lives, either right by her side or branching off into smaller groups that still closely associate with their mother.  The Southern Residents have three pods, or matrilineal groups, consisting of closely related individuals – referred to as J, K, and L pods.  Each pod has unique vocalizations and behaviors within the larger “clan” of Southern Residents, and even forage in different areas.

 L pod, the largest group of the three pods, has also had the biggest loss of individuals in the last 40 years.  They are seen off the California coast more often than J and K pods, and more frequently make use of California river systems like the Klamath and Sacramento Rivers.  They also have the unfortunate distinction of having the “California signature” of DDT in their bodies – a unique ratio of the contaminant that indicates L pod forages more extensively in California than their relatives.

J and K pods have stayed fairly stable in recent years – 25 and 19 members, respectively, since 2012.  L pod, however, has decreased from 40 members in 2012 to just 34 this year.  Two members were not seen this summer, and since these whales return to the same area every year, allowing the whole population to be accounted for, a whale not showing up is a bad sign.  This summer also saw the birth of a new calf – the first born into the entire population in two years – in L pod, but sadly, it disappeared after less than two months.  A missing orca is a bad sign – a missing calf is worse.

It’s unknown why L pod seems to be affected more than the other two pods.  Their higher DDT loads may be the culprit, or their continued use of California rivers with consistently declining salmon populations.  Are they starving or being poisoned to death – or a combination of both?

 Chinook salmon

The dam issue

It’s a depressing picture to paint.  We have a critically endangered population that has struggled to recover for 40 years and a host of threats that seem overwhelming.  But progress is being made.  A push to tear down dams in the Pacific Northwest has seen the return of spawning habitat and hopeful signs of recovery for salmon populations.  In the largest dam removal project in the world, the deconstruction of two dams on the Elwha River in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington was completed just this August.  The river is already starting to reshape itself, and salmon are being seen in areas that have been blocked for decades.  Habitat restoration is an ongoing process, but removing dams is a vital first step in returning rivers to their natural, free-flowing state – which has multiple benefits for the entire ecosystem (but more on that in a later blog!)

The Elwha may soon have to give up the title of the “Largest Dam Removal Project in the World,” if a project that was first proposed nearly five years ago is finally approved – the removal of four dams from the Klamath River, which runs through Oregon and California before meeting the Pacific in northern California.  Removing these dams would open up more than 300 miles of spawning habitat for Klamath Chinook stocks, provide access to areas that have been blocked for almost a hundred years, and ease the passage of juvenile salmon downstream to the ocean.

 Some rivers in the Southern Residents’ range have had improving returns of salmon in recent years – the Columbia has had record returns this year – but others have had significant losses, including the closure of Fraser River fisheries last year.  Rivers in the southern part of the whales’ range continue to suffer from the additional effects of severe drought in California and southern Oregon.  A massive fish die-off on the Klamath in 2002 may be repeated if water levels remain too low for returning salmon.

One way to get those river levels up? Remove the dams.  That 2002 die-off was the starting point for an historic negotiation process between multiple stakeholders in the Klamath River Basin, resulting in the decision to remove four dams: the JC Boyle, the Iron Gate, and Copco No. 1 & Copco No. 2.  Commercial fishermen, native tribes, PacifiCorp (the electricity company that owns and operates all four dams), farmers, fish biologists, and environmentalists have all agreed that taking these dams down is the best thing to help restore the Klamath River Basin.  And, it saves money – it will cost less to tear the dams down than it would to upgrade them to today’s standards (including regulations involving fish passage).

WDC supports this unique and ground-breaking approach to ecosystem restoration, because in the intricately connected environment of the Pacific Northwest, taking these dams down helps our critically endangered Southern Resident orcas.  Dam removal improves river health, which helps salmon populations, which provide food for these hungry orcas.  We’ve just launched the “Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed” campaign to lend our support to this project. 

The Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act was introduced to Congress this summer, but is still awaiting passage for funding and final approval.  Without it, the plan to take down the dams is stalled and no progress will be made.  The dams will stay up, the salmon will continue to decline, and the Southern Residents will continue to suffer from a lack of food.

Please join us in our latest campaign to help orcas in the Pacific Northwest – we won’t let Orcas Be Dammed