Shared from the 10/20/2018 Idaho Statesman eEdition

Saving orcas ‘may be impossible’ without dam removal, scientists say



Water from the Snake River rushes down a fish ladder at Lower Monumental Dam, which is located in Franklin and Walla Walla counties in Washington state. Scientists call for removing four dams on the Lower Snake River.

Leading killer-whale scientists and researchers are calling for removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River and a boost of water over the dams to save southern resident killer whales from extinction.

The scientists sent a letter this week to Gov. Jay Inslee and co-chairs of a governor’s task force on orca recovery. The whales need chinook — their primary prey — year round, scientists state in their letter, and the spring chinook runs in particular returning to the Columbia and Snake are among the most important.

That is because of the size, fat content and timing of those fish, making them critical for the whales to carry them over from the lean months of winter to the summer runs in the Fraser River, the scientists wrote.

The need for Columbia and Snake river fish is so acute, “we believe that restoration measures in this watershed are an essential piece of a larger orca conservation strategy. Indeed, we believe that southern resident orca survival and recovery may be impossible to achieve without it.”

Based on the science and the urgency of the current threats confronting the southern residents, the scientists recommended two top priorities for the task force in its recommendations for orca recovery: Immediately initiate processes to increase the spill of water over the dams on the Columbia and Snake, to create more natural river conditions, and to breach the Lower Snake River dams.

The letter comes as the death of three southern resident orcas in four months last summer, one from L pod and two in J pod, have added fuel to the long running-campaign to free the Snake.

Lower Snake River dam removal has been debated in the region for decades as a way to boost salmon runs.

Three federal judges in a row in five rulings since 1994 also have called for an overhaul of hydropower operations by federal agencies at eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to boost salmon survival, including a serious look at dam removal. The latest court review now underway will not be concluded until 2021.

However, the scientists called for urgent action now because the orcas are continuing to decline and need food. “Orca need more chinook salmon available on a year-round basis as quickly as possible,” the scientists wrote.

As orca advocates joined forces with dam busters, BPA has pushed back. In a recent press briefing, BPA managers said the Columbia and Snake produce only some of the fish the orcas use, and that the four Lower Snake River dams are important to the region.

The whales depend on chinook from rivers all over Puget Sound as well as the from the Fraser, Columbia and Snake rivers, a recent listing of fish runs important to the whales shows.

The first 15 salmon stocks on the priority list include fall, spring and summer Chinook salmon runs in rivers spanning from British Columbia to California, including the Fraser, Columbia, Snake and Sacramento rivers, as well as several rivers in Puget Sound watersheds.

Columbia and Snake rivers were once the biggest chinook producers in the world, but recovery efforts have been a long struggle. Hatchery chinook recently have been surging, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows.

Yet even good returns are a fraction of historic numbers. Wild runs have remained far below the level of adult returns required for recovery — let alone to prevent extinction.

Signing the letter were Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, and Deborah Giles, who is resident scientist at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs and the science and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca.

Their research shows a steady increase in mortality and orca pregnancy failure due to lack of adequate food. Today the orca population among the southern residents stands at just 74 individual whales — a 35-year low.

As early chinook runs have declined on the Fraser, Columbia River fish runs have become even more important, Wasser said.

“If they didn’t have that Columbia River infusion, they would really be cooked. ... The Columbia replenishes you, and sustains you until the Fraser peaks. I don’t think unless you have those Columbia runs you can save these whales.”

Also signing the letter was David Bain, chief scientist for the nonprofit Orca Conservancy, and Katherine Ayers and other scientists whose work has documented that vessel noise disrupts orca feeding. That disruption, as well as toxins in the food chain, are more harmful to orcas when they do not have enough food, because the orcas when hungry metabolize the toxins stored in their fat.

The letter came just before the governor’s task force on orca recovery convened one of its last meetings before making its recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee, due Nov.


At Thursday’s meeting, there was little consensus on whether the group should recommend that the governor convene stakeholders to discuss issues related to possible future removal of the dams.

Ken Balcomb, a scientist with the Center for Whale Research, who supports dam breaching, told the group that punting on the issue won’t help the orcas. “They’re reaching the bottom of their barrel,” he said. “We have to move the ball forward. The time is now.”

A number of whale and fisheries scientists have urged the task force to recommend breaching the dams and spilling more water over Columbia and Snake river dams to help salmon. Many who have commented have also supported the idea.

But dam supporters say the structures provide carbon-free electricity and support barging on the Snake River that moves millions of tons of cargo.

“The dams along that river are the lifeblood of those communities,” said Tom Davis, government relations director with the Washington Farm Bureau. He called the talk over dams “a distraction” that continues to divide the state.

Federal agencies are currently studying dam breaching as one of many options to aid salmon recovery in the Columbia River basin after a federal judge in 2016 ordered a new plan and told the federal government to consider breaching one or more of the four lower Snake River dams. That environmental review won’t be complete until 2021.

Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the four dams, and Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the power, said the structures provide low-cost electricity and add reliability to the entire system.

The dams produce an average of 1,000 megawatts of power a year, or about 5 percent of electricity generated in the Pacific Northwest, and account for about 12 percent of BPA’s power.

The Associated Press contributed.

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