After a particularly difficult 2016, which included the loss of beloved matriarch Granny (J2), we are hopeful that 2017 will see some positive changes for the critically endangered Southern Resident orca population and some real progress towards their recovery.
That recovery needs to start with addressing the top threat to the Southern Residents – prey depletion. A lack of food can worsen the impacts of other threats like toxic contamination and vessel effects. Without enough of their primary prey – Chinook salmon – the Southern Residents are more susceptible to the stress and physiological impacts caused by biocontamination and an increasingly crowded ocean. For the past few months, our #MigrationNation campaign, in collaboration with national and regional partners, has been gathering public support for what could be the greatest step for salmon recovery (and restoration of a vital food source for the Southern Resident orcas) in our lifetimes – removing the four lower Snake River dams.
In May of 2016, a federal judge ordered the agencies in charge of dam operations in the Columbia Basin to re-examine the dams’ impact threatened and endangered salmon. The current plan was the fifth in a row to be rejected by the courts, arguing that maintaining the “status quo” has already cost billions of dollars and has made no progress for salmon recovery. Now the federal agencies must fully examine new alternatives in the Columbia Basin to improve the recovery of wild salmon populations, including dam removal on the Snake River.
The Columbia-Snake River system was once one of the greatest salmon rivers in the world. 10-16 million adult salmon returned each year, beginning with the legendary massive spring Chinook in huge numbers. These fish, ready for a journey hundreds of miles inland to their natal spawning grounds, weighed as much as 100 pounds, and were an important source of nutrition for hungry Southern Resident orcas. Snake River salmon crashed when the last dams were completed in the 1970s, and by the 1990s all wild salmon in the Snake River were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
While the four lower Snake River dams were being built in the 1960s and 70s, the Southern Resident orca population was being targeted by the growing marine park industry. Live captures removed approximately 40% of their population and effectively removed an entire generation from this small community. The Southern Residents have struggled to recover and reach pre-capture population levels since then. The families left behind, those that escaped capture and a life in a concrete tank, have faced new challenges as their primary food source declined, pollution increased, and their ocean home became increasingly noisy and crowded with boats. Action is needed now to help save this unique orca population from being lost forever.
With this new call for input on dam operations in the Columbia Basin, we have a new chance to make our voices heard and to ensure the needs of the Southern Resident orcas are considered. The Snake River has the greatest recovery potential for salmon in the lower 48 states. Over 4.5 million acres in central Idaho are protected as Wilderness areas, along with thousands of miles of protected salmon habitat – if only the salmon had unobstructed access to this protected habitat.
We still have time to demand action from the federal agencies – join the #MigrationNation and sign our petition NOW to make sure Southern Resident orcas and salmon recovery are given the consideration they need in this re-examination of dam operations. Comments are due February 7th!
If you’ve already joined our #MigrationNation – THANK YOU! And please continue to support WDC by subscribing to our blogs and enewsletter, making a donation, or Adopting an Orca – and learn about other ways to give back.