Letters cite Lower Snake River dam removal as key to killer whale, salmon survival
More than a dozen prominent killer whale experts sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Dr. Jane Lubchenco, urging them to abandon the Federal Columbia and Snake biological opinion, or salmon plan, created by the Bush administration, saying that the plan ignores the best available science and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Read more of the Press Release.
The scientists’ letter echoes one recently sent to Dr. Lubchenco by Jean-Michel Cousteau, Founder and President of the Ocean Futures Society. Cousteau, who has spent a lifetime exploring the marine environment and advocating for the long-term health of the ocean system, recently released an acclaimed documentary film about killer whales (Call of the Killer Whale). He applauded NOAA’s recent findings that water operations in California’s Central Valley were endangering not only salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, but also the killer whales that depend on those salmon. In sharp contrast, he noted, the Columbia-Snake BiOp, inherited from the Bush administration, finds no endangerment to orcas; more troubling, it relies on reasoning that is directly contradicted by the findings of the Central Valley BiOp. Cousteau’s letter concludes:
The findings of the [Columbia-Snake rivers] 2008 Biological Opinion are inherently refuted by those of the [Central Valley] 2009 Biological Opinion, which found that hatchery-produced salmon puts native salmon runs at risk. This inconsistency in the science needs to be reconciled. By reconsidering the [2008 BiOp], NOAA has the chance to apply the more recent lessons learned…
I realize that this is a controversial issue with many stakeholders. However, both the SRKWs and native salmon have cultural and economic value to the Pacific Northwest, and their loss is not acceptable... I strongly urge you to by-pass the Snake River dams, whose functions can be fulfilled by other means, in order to save our orcas and our wild salmon.
Today, Cousteau added, “In spite of the apparent confusion of conflicting scientific reports, I think the science is clear about the fact that when dams or dikes kill thousands of wild chinook every year, whether from California or the Columbia River Basin, Puget Sound orcas are jeopardized.”
Today’s letter from these leading killer whale scientists and researchers raises concerns about several aspects of the government’s Columbia/Snake biological opinion for federal dam operations (“BiOp”). After noting that the survival of Puget Sound’s killer whales (also called orcas) depends on Chinook salmon, their primary food source, the letter takes issue with the BiOp’s approach to evaluating the dams’ impact on salmon; its overly optimistic assumptions about climate change and how that will affect salmon; and its refusal to examine the likely benefits of removing four dams on the lower Snake River, it concludes:
As federal scientists have previously recognized, and 300 independent scientists have echoed, removing the lower Snake dams is the surest means to recovering at least four endangered salmon runs… Lower Snake dam removal would restore salmon abundance to 1.5 million acres of high-elevation, low-temperature, largely undeveloped, mostly protected lands. When coupled with sound harvest policies, appropriate land use, and hatchery/aquaculture reform, opening access to this inland habitat would allow Chinook numbers to increase to levels that would again sustain Southern Residents… The 2008 BiOp was flawed in omitting consideration of dam breaching, ignoring sound science and repeated warnings from the federal courts.
Said Dr. David Bain, who has been studying marine mammals since 1977, "Puget Sound killer whale researchers have a lot of respect for NOAA's killer whale recovery plan, but await its implementation. The Columbia River salmon recovery plan fails to halt the decline in available prey. By allowing this steady reduction in wild salmon numbers to continue in the presence of many other threats, there will be devastating consequences for Puget Sound's killer whales. We urgently need to take action."
Howard Garrett founded the Orca Network to raise awareness about the whales of the Pacific Northwest, and about the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats. Speaking of the scientists’ and Cousteau’s letters, Garrett said, “Fewer than 90 Southern Resident killer whales remain. Now that we have finally stopped hunting them and capturing them for display, it would be tragic indeed if they went extinct because we failed to save their main food source.”
Protected under the ESA, Southern Resident orcas spend about half the year in Puget Sound (Washington) and the Georgia Straits (British Columbia), and then inhabit coastal waters in winter and spring. They have been seen as far south as Monterey Bay, California. Chinook salmon comprise as much as 75 percent of their diet. As salmon runs have declined in recent decades, so have Southern Resident populations. The health of the West Coast’s signature rivers – Columbia, Snake, Sacramento, Klamath – is a direct link to the health of the whale’s populations.
Locke, Lubchenco and other Obama administration officials are still reviewing the 2008 BiOp and must decide by September 15, 2009 how they will proceed.