As salmon dwindle, whales die

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Killer whales in British Columbia. Credit: Carl Safina
Killer whales in British Columbia. Credit: Carl Safina

Governor Jay Inslee visited the San Juan Islands over Labor Day weekend for two reasons: to secure voters, and to get a little peace and quiet. While he did find those two things, he was also confronted with something else—orca advocates seeking help for the region’s Southern Resident killer whales.

On the morning of September 3, atop Mount Grant, Inslee listened to the pleas of the orca group to remove dams from the Snake River to help replenish wild salmon stocks. In turn, he asked the group—which included both concerned scientists and citizens—questions about the importance of Columbia-Snake River Basin and its salmon to the orcas. The answer: With dams on the Columbia, there are fewer salmon, and with fewer salmon, the orcas will continue starving to death.

“We leave dams on rivers when they’re not needed anymore, continue to put toxins in the water and then build fish hatcheries and farms which have their own problems,” says Dr. Deborah Giles, research director at the Center for Whale Research who was one of the orca advocates who spoke to Inslee on Mount Grant. “Normally nature is resilient, but now the salmon have diminished to a level where they can’t rebound.”

At one point, the Columbia-Snake River Basin produced a greater amount of salmon than any other river system in the world. Each year, 10 to 16 million wild salmon returned each year to the basin to spawn. But today, just one percent of the historic number of fish return to the basin annually.

Chinook salmon in the fish ladder at the Hiram M Chittenden Locks near Seattle. Credit: Josh Larios
Chinook salmon in the fish ladder at the Hiram M Chittenden Locks near Seattle. Credit: Josh Larios (Wikimedia Commons)

The major culprit, experts say, is the four-dam system that was installed on the lower Snake River to create an inland seaport in Lewiston, Idaho, and produce electricity. Many salmon cannot get past the dams, which can kill fish in several ways. If fish don’t get crushed in turbines, they sometimes get caught on screens meant to protect them from being taken up into turbines. Most often, they’re killed by the intense heat and water pressure created by the dams. Many salmon die and therefore do not get to spawn. There are far fewer salmon born that successfully migrate to the sea, which is where they go to grow before returning to the river to spawn and die. And this, in turn, is killing whales.

“NOAA scientists have found that the damming of this river had the biggest negative impact on the Southern Residents’ food source,” says Giles. “This is probably the single biggest hit this fragile whale population has taken.”

The Southern Residents population of killer whales lives in the Salish Sea off the Pacific Northwest coast. It’s a critically endangered population, meaning it faces a very high extinction risk. When listed as federally endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2005, the population was about 88 whales. Today it’s about 80 whales, with 37 Southern Residents dying over the past 11 years, while just 21 have been born and survived—a nearly two-to-one death ratio.

Killer whales. Credit: Carl Safina
Killer whales. Credit: Carl Safina

Giles says a lack of salmon is only the latest of many problems that have threatened the survival of the wild Southern Resident population. Back in 1970, over 80 whales from this group were rounded up in local waters, where U.S. aquarium staff took 37 whales into captivity. Approximately 11 others died during the netting operations, according to NOAA. When captures were banned in 1976, only 71 individuals remained in the free-living population. (All the others have since died in captivity except Lolita, who survives in substandard conditions at the Miami Seaquarium.)

“Today we’re seeing fragmentation: The three pods—J, K and L—that make up this population have so little food that they can no longer be together at the same time,” says Giles, “There is now always a group or two that has to be out at sea feeding.”

Male orca, “porpoising” out of waters off Washington State. Credit: Minette Layne (Wikimedia Commons)

Separation of the pods means a greater chance that individuals within the same pod will breed with each other, which is less genetically desirable than breeding between individuals of two different pods. Less genetic diversity means a lower overall survival rate for the whales.

Several organizations including the Center for Whale Research, Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative and the Orca-Salmon Alliance all recommend removing dams they see as no longer necessary. They point out that today, on-river shipping is down to 18 percent of what it was when the four dams were installed in the 60s and 70s; a train system now runs along the river, which could be used for shipping; and there is no way to store the excess power created by the river in the springtime when the river is creating the greatest amount of energy.

Hypothetically, being earthen berm dams, the dams on the Snake River could be removed in a matter of weeks with bulldozers, thereby without greatly disturbing the river ecosystem.

Today some are proposing feeding the starving Southern residents—many of which are displaying clear signs of starvation like exposed ribs and “peanut head”—hatchery salmon, but Giles sees that as just a Band-Aid on the bigger problem of the dams’ existence.

“Peanut head” on an orca is a condition where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes areas that should be full and round to be sunken and concave. This photo comes from a presentation given by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering
“Peanut head” on an orca is a condition where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes areas that should be full and round to be sunken and concave. This photo comes from a presentation given by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering

“Feeding the Southern Residents hatchery fish is a short-term solution,” says Giles. “Humans think we can fix things through engineering but we should do reverse engineering: take down dams, eliminate point-source pollution, keep things in as natural a state as possible. And that includes replenishing the wild salmon and orca populations.”

Perhaps the only way we’ll know if Inslee has taken the orca advocates’ messages to heart is if and when the dams come down.

Changing Planet

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Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.