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Protecting Orca by Restoring Salmon

by Emily Greenberg
Journal Reporter
Jan 31, 2015

CSI-logo copyWhat started as a petition to be submitted to Washington state congressional representatives will soon find its way to the nation’s capital.

Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative, an organization formed recently by San Juan islanders, is petitioning for removal of the lower four Snake River dams. The group wants the dams removed to help recover the beleaguered southern resident orca population that rely heavily on chinook salmon for food. The dams are located in southeast Washington.

The population of the southern residents sits at 78 whales, a 30-year low.

“The orcas are starving,” said Sharon Grace, organizer of Salmon Initiative. “Breaching the Snake River dams is the most effective means to provide food to the orcas.”

The group’s petition for removal of the Snake River dams was launched on the petition platform in mid-December. As of Jan. 26, it’s been signed by  more than 8,500 supporters.

The petition has gained momentum quickly, which attracted the attention of two major organizations headed to Washington D.C. to lobby for the same cause.

To push for removal of the Snake River dams, the local Salmon Initiative is now working with Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation organizations and businesses, and Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company with a focus on conservation.

The plight of the orcas, brought to the surface by Salmon Initiative’s petition, will be presented in D.C. by Save Our Wild Salmon and Patagonia alongside other critical information.

The southern resident orca population was declared endangered in 2005, and the National Marine Fisheries Service lists lack of food as one of the major threats to orca survival. There were four orca deaths in 2014 including a pregnant female, J-32, and a newborn calf, L-120.

According to the Center for Whale Research, upon necropsy of J-32’s carcass, her blubber was observed as thin and dry of oil, consistent with inadequate diet for an extended period.

“Science has confirmed that the orcas rely heavily on Snake and Columbia Rivers’ salmon,” Save Our Wild Salmon Executive Director Joseph Bogaard said. “Salmon numbers have plummeted in the last decade. There’s a lot of reasons to take this seriously, and orcas are one more reason.”

Linking orca survival to the troubled salmon populations could be the tipping point needed to initiate the dams’ removal. Treaty obligations to First Nation Tribes in the Columbia River Basin is another main component of why the coalition is pushing for dam removal.

According to Boggard, “spill” tactics applied during the salmon migratory season is proof that dam removal would improve salmon stocks. Spill sends water over the dams when the bulk of the fish migrate, mimicking the natural flow of the river. When implemented, more fish survive the migration, he said.

The salmon coalition and Patagonia are sending representatives to Washington, D.C. in the last week of January to screen the film “Damnation” and lobby for removal of the Snake River dams. “Damnation” chronicles the removal of the Elwha River dam.

The film, which was produced by Patagonia, featured Jim Wadell, a civil engineer retired from the Army Corp of Engineers.

Wadell will represent Patagonia in D.C. and present the facts in regard to the lower four Snake River dams no longer being economically viable. Samantha Mace will represent Save Our Wild Salmon and focus on the effects the dams have on salmon. In their testimonies, both will include the  perilous condition of the southern residents and present the petition put forth by Salmon Initiative.

Mace and Wadell will meet with congress and other federal organizations, including the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Wadell was a project manager for a dam study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla, Wash., in 2000. The study would determine if the lower four snake river dams should be removed for salmon population recovery.

It was determined that the dams should be breached in order to recover salmon, but there were gross overestimates for the cost of removal and underestimates in the cost of keeping and maintaining the dams, Wadell said. These factors have prevented the dams from being removed for the last 15 years.

“I can’t believe they want to hang on to these dams when it’s costing this much money,” he said. “Save money, save salmon, save orcas. It’s implausible to think the state of Washington would allow these creatures to go extinct.”

In the last year-and-a-half Wadell has studied the economic effects of the lower four Snake River dams. What he found suggests that the original calculations were off, and the dams are operating at a deficit. He said removing the dams would encourage new enterprises and recreational opportunities, and ultimately benefit the economy by up to $150 million per year.

If salmon populations are not recovered and the southern resident orcas meet their demise due to lack of food, negative economic impacts of keeping the dams will trickle up to San Juan County.

Grace is excited to have such strong organizations backing the same initiative, and hopeful that meetings in D.C. prove to be beneficial. For now the local Salmon Initiative is posting flyers around town directing people to the petition, and educating the public on the connection between the Snake River dams and orca survival.

“Those dams will come down,” she said. “They’re old. They don’t make ecological sense. Whether or not they will come down in time for the orcas is the question.”

For more information, visit the Salmon Initiative Facebook page or email The petition is

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