April 16, 2020
Sristi Kamal

In this time of uncertainty, you might like to hear some hopeful news for our struggling endangered southern resident orcas. 

Orca J-16 rainblow
Miles Ritter

In a February letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown laid out a short-term and long-term vision for recovering salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin, including commit-ting to finding a comprehensive solution to the biggest barrier to orca recovery – the four lower Snake River dams. The letter is a significant voice on a controversial subject. It is also a strong show of leadership from Gov Brown, and of Oregon’s commitment to finding a solution to the decades long struggle of salmon and orca recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

L's and K's headed northeast into the Strait of Georgia where they would meet up with most of the rest of the Southern Residents headed in the opposite direction creating a "superpod." Photo taken from the sandstone shores of East Point, Saturna Island, looking due east towards Patos Island and Mt. Baker.
Miles Ritter

Most Oregonians think of the southern resident orcas as “Washington’s orcas.” Few people are aware that these orcas travel down the Oregon coast to spend fall and winter at the mouth of the Columbia River sustaining themselves almost exclusively on Oregon’s chinook salmon. The Columbia basin’s largest tributary, the Snake River, historically produced about half the fish in the basin, but today, less than 1% of wild Snake River chinook return in the spring run. One of the biggest factors contributing to this problem are the lower Snake River dams. These dams are responsible for high juvenile and adult mortality because they block fish passage and they increase water temperature to lethal levels for salmon. 

As goes the salmon, so goes the orca – and only 72 orcas remain in the three pods combined, making Oregon’s role especially critical in ensuring their survival and recovery.

Chinook salmon in Ship Creek, Alaska
Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Gov. Brown’s letter provides a refreshing ray of hope by acknowledging the endangered orcas as Oregon’s, too, and by proposing a list of solutions to address the multifaceted challenge of removing the four lower dams. Gov. Brown emphasized the need for “an affordable, nimble and reliable power system that can help us to integrate renewables to meet our climate goals; continues water supply for agriculture and municipalities; and efficient and affordable ways to get commodities to market.” 

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Columbia river meandering through the Columbia River Gorge
Image Credit
Sristi Kamal/Defenders of Wildlife
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Oregon coast close to the mouth of the Columbia
Image Credit
Sristi Kamal/Defenders of Wildlife

More importantly, she acknowledged that the dams need to go because “no other action can simultaneously address both orca and salmon recovery dilemma while providing certainty for the region.” 

Brown’s letter was a call to action – a call to initiate a collaborative and meaningful conversation to address the immediate and long-term impacts of removing the dams to restore the lower Snake River and the salmon that call it home. In addition to the 2018 multiparty agreement to increase and standardize spill over dams in the two states, Brown has demonstrated that Oregon cares about the southern resident orcas.  

Oregon coastline close to the mouth of the Columbia
Sristi Kamal/Defenders of Wildlife

Now Oregonians need to join her in calling for this holistic solution. You can do your part by sending comments to federal agencies that own and operate these four dams. It’s time for the Pacific Northwest to come together on this issue. If we want to stop the extinction of these orcas, it is now or never.

Author(s)

Sristi Kamal

Sristi Kamal

Senior Northwest Representative
As the Senior Representative for the Northwest Program, Sristi works in close collaboration with our local partners and state agencies to protect imperiled species and support ecological connectivity work and engaging local communities through our community science project.
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