At the mouth of the Columbia River, endangered southern resident orcas gather in early spring hoping to gorge on chinook. The endangered fish—the largest of the West Coast salmon—comprise the majority of the diet of these endangered marine mammals, which often awe tourists and residents when they appear in Puget Sound off Seattle.
For about 80 years, four federal dams have blocked salmon runs along the lower Snake River, making it difficult for adult salmon to move upstream to spawn and for juveniles to make their way back to the ocean. These dams put the chinook’s future at risk, and they are also causing southern resident orcas to starve. Today, only 73 of these individuals—with a culture separate from other orcas—survive.
Before the dams, millions of salmon would return from the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River bound for the Snake, the Columbia’s largest tributary. The Snake once produced almost half the salmon in the basin, making it one of the most productive river systems for salmon in the world.
Now only an estimated 5% of Snake River salmon make it back to the ocean. If the dams were removed that number would rise to 1 million a year, according to the Fish Passage Center, a research collaborative among government wildlife agencies. “We need to boost juvenile salmon survival for the southern resident orcas to stand a chance,” says Kathleen Gobush, Defenders’ Northwest director.
Most worrisome is this lack of food, but these orcas face other problems, too, including toxic chemicals in the water, noise pollution and vessel disturbance.
Recognizing the orcas need help, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded designated critical habitat to nearly 18,500 miles—or by 640%—this past summer. The protected area spans the coast from the Canadian border to Point Sur in California.
“This is an important recognition of the resources the whales need to survive and opens the door to further conservation efforts,” says Gobush. “But there are few other actions the federal government can take that would as profoundly impact the survival of southern resident orcas than removing the four dams and restoring the spawning runs of the Snake River.”
Leading orca researchers have stated unequivocally that the southern resident orcas are unlikely to survive if these dams remain.
In 2018, the Orca Task Force—created by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee after a series of orca deaths that year and made up of government agencies, scientists, tribes and nongovernmental organizations including Defenders—recommended dam removal as one of many options. In October, the governor—while not committing to dam removal—announced a study assessing how to replace the services currently provided by the dams by next summer. At the same time, Washington Sen. Patty Murray is working to secure funding for an evaluation of the costs and impacts of dam removal through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act.
“The momentum we are seeing on this issue gives us hope,” Gobush says. “But time is very short.”