By Giulia Good Stefani, Sristi Kamal, and Colleen Weiler
Feb 26, 2020
Good Stefani is senior attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council and lives in Mosier. Kamal is a senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife and lives in Portland. Weiler is the Jessica Rekos Fellow for Whale and Dolphin Conservation and lives in Newport.
Gov. Kate Brown stepped forward earlier this month to offer Oregon’s help for orcas and everyone embroiled in the longstanding struggle for salmon restoration in the Columbia River Basin. Restoring salmon to the basin is essential for many reasons, including the fact that these salmon feed a critically endangered orca population.
In a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Brown announced her commitment to finding a comprehensive solution to the logjam of dams versus salmon—arguably one of the toughest ecological, economic, energy, and environmental justice challenges facing our region. Last year, Washington state made headlines for its orca and salmon legislation as well as its billion-dollar budget to save these two beloved endangered species. Partnership between our states is overdue.
In her letter, Gov. Brown acknowledges that the critically endangered orcas, known as the “southern residents,” are Oregon’s orcas, too. Oregonians have an under-appreciated connection and responsibility to this magnificent family of whales. The southern resident orcas are dying, with another adult nicknamed “Mega” gone just last month. With the loss of Mega, there are just 72 southern resident orcas left, and the scientists who know and love the whales can identify each one. If we lose these whales, we lose a highly complex culture, an astounding apex predator and a big piece of the magic and richness of the Pacific Northwest.
The biggest threat to the whales is a severe shortage of their preferred food, chinook salmon. Like any other animal, the whales suffer without adequate nutrition. Reproductive-age females in particular experience high rates of pregnancy loss, reduced body condition and increased mortality. Nearly 70 percent of pregnancies detected in recent years have failed, a heartbreaking statistic that was starkly illustrated in the summer of 2018 by a grieving orca mother who refused to let her dead newborn calf go.
The mighty Columbia was once among the greatest salmon-producing river systems on the planet, and the Snake River—its largest tributary—historically produced about half the fish. Today, less than 1% of wild spring Snake River chinook return, a dramatic decline since the late 1960s when the lower Snake River dams were built.
The collapse of salmon in the Columbia Basin has devastating implications far beyond the orca population. These fish are primary to Columbia Basin Native peoples’ identity, health, wealth, and culture. Salmon support a multi-million dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry, and they form the backbone of the entire Pacific Northwest’s ecology. If you live around here, you are living in salmon country with salmon people.
Gov. Brown’s vision for salmon recovery, as stated in the letter, is a package of solutions choreographed to reach multiple objectives. Brown emphasizes the need for "an affordable, nimble and reliable power system that can help us to integrate renewables to meet our climate goals; continued water supplies for agriculture and municipalities; and efficient and affordable ways to get commodities to market." She also did not shy away from the fact that we must consider restoration of the lower Snake River by removing the four lower Snake River dams. “No other action,” she wrote, “can simultaneously address both the orca and salmon recovery dilemma while providing certainty” for the region, which has been deadlocked in conflict over the dams for decades.
It’s time to stop fighting and to start asking what we need to support communities and help salmon recover—and orcas, too. Oregon is a vital part of those discussions, and progress will require a serious investment in the “collaborative, solutions-based discussions” that the governor suggests. Our common ground is a shared understanding that the Oregon life offers an increasingly rare kind of wild abundance. Let’s work together to keep it that way.