Southern Resident killer whale population is running out of salmon, running out of time

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales off San Juan Island, Washington State.

The Southern Resident killer whales are starving to death. Seven members of the critically endangered population died in 2016, including Granny, the oldest killer whale in the world and the leader of the Southern Residents. This unique community of whales only eats fish, a cultural tradition passed down for thousands of years from mother to young. At an estimated 105 years old, Granny was the keeper of knowledge; she knew where to find salmon in times of plenty, and where to look for them in leaner years. Recently, every year has been a lean year, and the Southern Resident whales have been spread far and wide in search of salmon, but Granny was always in the lead.

Southern Resident killer whales evolved side-by-side with salmon in the Pacific Ocean. They learned to select the best and fattiest of fish, the Chinook salmon, and discovered the best locations and times to find these Kings, committing that knowledge to memory and passing it along down generations. Even as Chinook salmon populations have plummeted in the Northwest, the Southern Resident killer whales stick to their traditions and follow their elders, and continue to visit the mouths of specific rivers when the salmon are running.

But now, they’re running out of fish, and running out of time. Critically endangered and faced with a multitude of threats, and now without their venerated leader, this population of killer whales lives on the brink of extinction. The Southern Residents need an abundant and widely available distribution of Chinook salmon throughout the year, in the entire extent of their range, not just in the fraction that federal agencies have designated as summer critical habitat.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whale breaching, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whale breaching, British Columbia, Canada.

The Columbia River Basin used to provide those abundant Chinook runs for the Southern Residents. The whales were, and still are, regular visitors to the mouth of the Columbia from January to April, ready for the historic huge runs of Spring Chinook to begin their upstream battle to return to the place of their birth. The Snake River Basin once produced half of the nearly two million Spring Chinook that flooded through the mouth of the Columbia every year. The habitat they were returning to, thousands of miles of wilderness and cold, spring-fed rivers and streams, is still in excellent condition. But now the salmon can’t get there. Their access is hindered, by four dams on the lower Snake River, now the focus of salmon advocates throughout the Northwest. The historic productivity of the habitat behind these dams and its protected status gives scientists hope for salmon recovery, even in a world of climate change. But this habitat doesn’t do the salmon any good if they can’t get there. These four dams must be removed to give Snake River salmon their best shot at recovery.

And for the Southern Residents to have their best shot at recovery, they need those salmon. Killer whales don’t have freezers; they can’t stock salmon away for leaner times. If you’re a killer whale looking for food, timing is everything, and over thousands of years they learned when and where the best salmon runs in the region were happening.

Snake River Spring Chinook, with their formerly huge run sizes and high fat content, used to provide the Southern Residents with much-needed winter food. But today, the numbers for Spring Chinook are way down, even when hatchery fish are added in.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales, British Columbia, Canada.

At best, hatcheries are keeping the problem from getting worse, but they’re not meeting the Southern Residents’ nutritional needs. The Southern Resident killer whale population is in dangerous decline, and current salmon numbers are nowhere near enough to help them even start to recover.

The narrow focus of the federal agencies on simply maintaining current salmon numbers – far below the historic runs of millions of salmon that the Southern Residents evolved alongside of – ignores the critical question of what these whales actually need, which is “a lot more Chinook than we have now.” With seven whales lost last year, the status quo is already failing these whales.

That’s where those four lower Snake River dams come in. A new court ruling, handed down last May, ordered federal agencies to re-examine hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Scientists and advocacy groups across the nation and throughout the Northwest are calling for action on those four salmon-killing dams.   To save the salmon, we must restore access to that pristine, protected wilderness behind the lower Snake River dams. To save the Southern Residents, we need that salmon. Two icons of the Northwest, their identities linked to each other, and to the place they call home. It’s up to us to make sure they can keep calling it home for the next thousand years. Granny may be gone, but her library of knowledge was passed on to her family, and they’ll continue to visit the Columbia River in search salmon, remembering the once vast quantities like an echo from the past.

The federal agencies need to hear from you on this issue. Tell them to consider the science, stop relying on outdated information, and step up to save salmon and killer whales, before it’s too late for both.

Sign a petition from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to demand that the federal agencies consider the Southern Residents and their need for healthy, abundant, and available salmon runs from the Snake River.

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.
  • Adam M

    Well this is super depressing…. It’s amazing the amount of change it takes to get people to realize the serious issues around them.

  • Lori Psyne

    The oil pipelines that have been approved by Canadian government will bring major tanker activity thru the killer whales territory – scientists must inform the Canadian government this is wrong! And damns for the salmon must end!

  • Joanna Wikd


  • Tracy parish

    Open the dams

  • Janet Kewleyadam

    Humankind is destroying these creatures natural habitat shame on Canadian and USA governments

  • Donna Radcliffe

    The need for big, healthy salmon is great. To have the dams gone on the lower Snake River and that habitat to be restored would be beneficial to orcas and people. The resident orcas who depend on the fish are starving and having to work harder to find food. Save the orcas! Save the people! Destroy the dams. Restore life!

  • David Johnson

    You’re barking up the wrong tree,the seals and sea lions are eating all of the chinook salmon (1.4 million pounds, 9 times more than in 1970) the killer whale should usually eating

    Seals and sea lions are decreasing potential returns by about 162,000 adult chinook each year.

    In the last 15 years we’ve had the largest runs chinook Salmon on the Columbia river since the 1930s


  • S. Barnes

    Save the southern resident orcas!

  • Deborah Ahern

    Politics and our congress delay too much. Release the dam it’s fiiscally responsible to tax payers and federal money used for upkeep and at the same time you’ll be protecting orcas food supply and the salmons regeneration.

  • Jan Hare

    My understanding is that these 4 dams need only to be breached, quicker and cheaper than removing.

    Re. David’s comment, I can only read the abstract. Does the paper suggest a solution to this problem and could anything be done soon enough to save the SRKWs? Clearly the transients have plenty to eat.

  • Emanuel Falcone

    There is hardly any time left before it will be too late. Help them NOW…..without delay !!

  • Dave Cremer

    Help these poor defenceless creatures.

  • Deborah Bradosky

    Just free the Snake River Dam, It is a simply solution and a Win situation,

  • Kris Schmidt

    Don’t wait until we have 2 whales left and then decide you are going to do something. This is how things usually go in government. Wake up and act now and save these whales from extinction.

  • Darlene Oertl

    Save the orcas!! Now!!!

  • Darlene Oertl

    Save the orcas now!! The hell with politics!!

  • Dawn Jess

    once again greed for money overcomes morality, how many more of earths wonderful creatures will become extint before we throw those evil robots out //

  • Julie Wakefield

    The whales need saving …. People need to stand up and do something!!

  • Lydia S

    It’d be too sad if they died.. please save them 🙁

  • kevin d. blanch PhD the great pacific genocide

    fukushima broke the eco chain, still killing the basic layer of life no plankton no shrimp no sardines no sea lions no SALMON NO KILLER WHALES ;;; denial is not a RIVER IT IS THE GREAT PACIFIC BLUE LADY MARINE BIOS, ignorance the science world stood by and let this go on for 2155 days ;; there in action was there action protecting the nuclear energy killers, kevin d.

  • Val Mlvl

    Save them, they are the balance of the oceans and therefore of our planet UNLIKE the money board!

  • mark s.

    no mention of the commercial and even sport fishing numbers, we should put a complete ban on catching Chinook salmon, i stopped eating and catching springs last year and until the res whale numbers come back up i will leave them alone.

  • Abby Schwarz

    Chinook, like so many other large fish, favour Pacific herring. What are the population trends for the herring?

  • Steve B

    It’s more than just the snake river that’s the issue. A much bigger decline in salmon stocks has occurred on the Canadian side with the Fraser River’s salmon runs including the chinook which are far more depressed than the Columbia River stocks. The southern resident whales feed during the summer in the Juan de Fuca straight which some years up to 90% of the Fraser salmon migrate through. Canada continues to whip out its salmon wild salmon stocks and ignores or refuses to investigate the impact fish farms are having on the wild stocks. An inquiry into the decimation of the salmon stocks submitted its final report in 2012 with no action taken until recently with the election of the new government. Hopefully we’ll see a change in management however much of the recommendations are in typical gov’t fashion claimed to be in place without any actual changes being made. I now read though that on the USA side of Juan de Fuca straight that Cooke Marine now has approval for the first ever fish farm in the straight. The pressure on the wild salmon continues.

    Hopefully for the whales and eco system as a whole people will speak out and hold politicians accountable. As consumer’s we can take actions ourselves by our buying behaviours.

  • Mark D

    Follow the money people. The 2 sponsors funding the idea of removing the 4 snake river dams are fishing guides aka outfitters and large white water rafting companys. Fishing guides have plans on bringing millionaires from back east here and charging big bucks to catch a single fish. The same goes for the white water rafting companys. What about all the dams along the Columbia river before the snake river, no talk of removing those dams! People that believe this story are nothing more then cattle.

    • Mikee71

      wrong….the reality is that there are many more animals than you would believe now on the Endangered specie list…not just the Pacific coast Orca pods. The problem is various Departments of fish and game, including NOAA including the Dept. of the interior are ‘forced’ to consider the Pacific Salmon commercial AND sport fish industries…those equate to food for humans obviously, but also tax dollars. Very little or I should say minimal dollars are being allocated to enhancing the Salmon situation. A combination of a regional moratorium ( at least one year to allow native Salmon to recover or have a good production year, without being interfered with by humans, for rebuilding their wild stocks , increased aquaculture of Chinook Salmon so as to augment natural production and the removal of at least two of the more critical dams currently impacting old Salmon spawning grounds.
      Yes there will be yelling and loud ‘gnashing of teeth’, but we’ve got to give back some while we still have time to do so. After all, we’ve been overfishing all manner of edible species of fish for a couple of hundred years without too much consideration of how much we’re leaving for species like the Pacific Orca..
      By making a relatively short sacrifice now, we’ll insure that Salmon and all the other species that rely on them for food, including us, will be here for many years to come.

  • Tom Ross

    Why dont they build fish ladders for them to swim up passed thee dams.been done around our area.

  • Susan Aune

    It’s got to stop! The neglect the horrific abuses our wild life faces…its heart breaking and wrong! It’s time to stop being so vain! Stop thinking about yourself your phone your make up! Start thinking about all life! We are on this food chain too! It’s them then us. This isn’t the world our God intended! End abuse! Save our earths inhabitants! Think!!!!

  • Jonathan B

    OK… think about this. Orcas eat salmon, just like people eat any other food. But the problem is, Chinook Salmon for them is like water for us. Without it, they would die. And without water, you would die… 96% of the Orca diet is Chinook. Take that away from them, and they will be extinct in 20 years, or less, and then the salmon will follow only a couple years after… The world has to do something about this crisis… and now!

  • Charles Brown

    (1) Breach the damn dams or build natural pool-and-drop fish ladders (cost is immaterial at this point – think about how much money people send on drugs). (2) Restore hatchery production using stock from each river FOR that river to overcome the objections of fish purists (SRKW don’t care if they are eating genetically authentic salmon for each river – the sea lions don’t) (3) Ban commercial salmon fishing in the region – it isn’t selective (4) Temporarily ban ALL salmon fishing – sport fishing is selective and not all runs are endangered, but SRKW need the surplus to recover (5) Ban agricultural and building projects that cause siltation, raise water temperatures, block fish passages, reduce water flow (5) Evaluate and reduce pollution sources like lawn fertilizer that cause dead zones and have led to critically endangered stocks of herring (e.g. Squaxin and Cherry Point stocks) Building your damn McMansion next to the water, with bulkheads that disturb critical shoreline habitat for food fish like herring and smelt, is causing them to decline. You are destroying eel grass beds that they need to breed, and your septic tank leaks into the water causing eutrophication and toxic pollution. Reducing these forage fish that salmon need reduces salmon that the whales need. (6) Crack down on polluters who use our rivers and the Salish Sea for their personal toilets (Seattle and Victoria we’re looking at you). (7) Reduce the sealion population on the Columbia River to reverse the human-caused trophic displacement. Humans have reduced the number of apex predators that would keep sealions in check, causing sealion numbers to be seven times what they were in the 1970’s, and they are habituated to the dams and locks now. Human activities discourage the few predators that remain by our protective presence near sealion aggregations. We provide a free lunch program for the sealions by giving them concentrated and crippled salmon smolts at the base of the dams and locks. We need to intervene and reverse the imbalance we have created. Read the latest results from NOAA Fisheries; sealions and cormorants eat more salmon than the SRKW by far, and both sealions and cormorants are artificially enhanced by human activities on the Columbia River. No one wants to euthanize an animals that looks like a sea dog but no one wants to see the SRKW go extinct either. (8) Keep boats AWAY from whales, and stop sonar related disturbances, injuries, and deaths.

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