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Protecting Orca by Restoring Salmon

Protecting Orca by Restoring Salmon

orca.kitsapThe Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) of Washington State's Puget Sound amd Salish Sea are a critical part of the Northwest ecosystem and economy. They are apex predators, much-loved icons of Washington State that generate tens of millions in tourism dollars every year. They are also officially "endangered" and face severe threats to their survival. A top problem for the SRKWs is a lack of an adequate prey base - chinook salmon.

Despite having learned much about these imperiled whales in the last decade, NOAA has made precious little actual progress to meet their essential needs. The Columbia Basin — and the Snake River watershed in particular — that holds the greatest promise for restoring significant numbers of chinook in the near-term. For this reason, orca scientists and advocates increasingly support calls to remove the four costly lower Snake River dams.

No other Northwest chinook restoration proposal offers such potential. Investing in a healthy, free-flowing lower Snake River will restore salmon’s spawning access to more than 5,500 high-quality river and stream miles and produce hundreds of thousands more chinook to help southern resident killer whales survive and rebuild. Save Our wild Salmon looks forward to the opportunity to work with the people of Washington State and beyond to craft a plan that restores the Snake River and serves orcas, salmon and our communities on both sides of the Cascades.

Read the articles and posts for additional information on how these two critical Northwest species are connected.

Orcas Need Salmon.

Critically endangered Southern Resident orcas are doing their part.
It’s time to do ours. We need your help!

Please call and write Washington State's U.S. Senators
Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell today.

We must act quickly. While Southern Resident orcas have welcomed three new calves in the past year, just 75 individual whales survive today. Without enough salmon to eat, however, they are struggling to survive.

Restoring the lower Snake River is our very best opportunity to restore salmon to abundance across the Pacific Northwest region – to help to feed hungry orcas and assist struggling tribal and fishing communities at the same time.

We stand with Northwest tribal leaders, business owners, local communities, clean energy experts and countless citizens: Now is the time for a solution that works for salmon, for orcas, for tribes – for all of us.

Contact Senator Murray and Senator Cantwell today.

Let them know how vital their leadership is before the extinction of these irreplaceable Northwest species becomes our legacy.

We need Senator’s Cantwell and Murray leadership to seize this opportunity in 2021 - to make big investments to restore salmon abundance and protect orcas, strengthen our energy and transportation infrastructure, and sustain more just and prosperous communities across the Northwest.

ACT NOW: Tell Washington's leaders: "Now is the time to act!”

Make two phone calls:

One important thing you can do right now: pick up the phone and call Senators Murray and Cantwell –  let them know that we need their leadership now for salmon and orcas, and our communities. It only takes a moment, but it makes a big impression.

Senator Cantwell office: (206) 220-6400 (Seattle) / (202) 224-3441 (D.C)
Senator Murray office: (206) 553-5545 (Seattle) / (202) 224-2621 (D.C.)

Here are suggested message points:

  • Introduce yourself and include where you live. Be polite and speak clearly.
  • “I am calling to ask Senator Murray/Cantwell to use her leadership to work with others on the 2021 Infrastructure Bill taking shape in Congress right now. As a constituent, I strongly support restoring the lower Snake River and its salmon and investing in critical infrastructure to ensure more just and prosperous communities.”
  • Share why salmon/orcas/healthy rivers are important to you, your family, and your community.
  • Emphasize the need for bold and urgent action this year, and how Snake River salmon and Southern Resident orcas face extinction today: Snake River fish are returning at some of their lowest levels ever - and just 75 Southern Resident orcas survive in 2021.

Send an email to Sens. Murray and Cantwell:

You can also follow this link to send a pre-written, editable letter to Senators Murray and Cantwell – and your member of the House of Representatives. (Phone calls are more impactful - and a follow-up email can help reinforce your message!)


Here's a listing of links and phone numbers a set of important Northwest public officials. You can also send emails to these electeds officials directly through their websites.

Here are some links to further information about the urgent plight of Snake River salmon and Southern Resident orcas – and opportunity right now for Northwest Congressional delegation to work together on a comprehensive plan that works for salmon, for orcas, for tribes – and for all of us.
The Columbian: Yakama Nation to Emhoff: Breach dams on Snake River (April 6)

E&E News: A Republican wants to breach dams. Where are Democrats? (March 23)

Portland Business Journal: Viewpoint: A way to end litigation around salmon and dams (March 19)

The Columbian Editorial - In Our View: Snake River dams plan warrants consideration (March 21)

Spokesman Review Guest Opinion: Create a future on the lower Snake River that works for everyone. (March 7)

Lewiston Morning Tribune: Scientists say removing Snake River dams ‘is necessary’ to restore salmon population (Feb. 23)

Seattle Times: GOP congressman pitches $34 billion plan to breach Lower Snake River dams in new vision for Northwest (Feb. 7)


You can also visit the websites of partner organizations listed below to learn more about the plight of salmon and orcas and communities, possible solutions – and how you can get more involved.

Earth JusticeEarth MinistryEnvironment WashingtonNIMIIPUUOrca ConservancyOrca NetworkSave Our wild SalmonSierra ClubWhale ScoutWild Orca

Save Our wild Salmon works closely with orca advocates, orca-based businesses and scientists regionally and nationally to protect and restore the main prey base – chinook salmon – that Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) depend upon for their survival and recovery.

SOS first began this work in 2006, when NOAA-Fisheries listed the SRKWs as ‘endangered’ under the Endangered Species Act. In 2015, after a series of devastating orca deaths during the previous year, SOS joined forces with several other advocacy organizations to found the Orca Salmon Alliance (OSA) in order to better advocate for these two iconic Northwest species – Chinook salmon and Southern Resident orcas – whose fates are inextricably linked.

Orca and salmon: an ancient relationship

Highly social, highly intelligent Southern Resident Killer Whales have roamed the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of thousands of years – relying primarily on an abundance of large, fatty chinook salmon for their diet. In recent decades, however, their numbers have declined precipitously; steep declines of chinook salmon populations across the Pacific Northwest is a leading cause of this decline.

Orcas’ reliance on chinook salmon that originate in the Columbia-Snake River Basin during key times of the year has long been accepted in the scientific community. Though behavioral patterns can vary greatly year to year, SRKWs typically spend approximately half of the year roaming the West Coast - from British Columbia to northern California – hunting for salmon. In its 2008 SRKW Recovery Plan, NOAA-Fisheries acknowledges orcas’ historic reliance on Columbia Basin chinook and describes its population declines as “[p]erhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s...”. But it has only been more recently that this Southern Resident Orca – Columbia Basin Chinook salmon nexus has explicitly documented and detailed with acoustic data, satellite tagging data, fecal sample analysis, and visual confirmation.

Scientists have identified three main causes of decline for SRKWs today: lack of sufficient prey, toxins, and vessel noise. It is the lack of an adequate prey base throughout the year, however, that is broadly recognized as the most important factor and one that must be urgently addressed in order to protect this apex predator from extinction. Numerous SRKW hormone analyses based on fecal sample collections in the last few years confirm the tight connection between chinook salmon abundance in Northwest marine waters and the survival and reproductive success of SRKWs.

Restoring Columbia-Snake salmon is key to orca survival

New science also confirms that SRKWs spend large amounts of time hunting at and near the mouth of the Columbia River, especially during the months from January – April. This is the same time when spring chinook are schooling up near the river’s mouth before they return to river in search of their natal spawning gravels. Spring chinook are especially valuable to these orca due to their relatively large size and their high fat content. In the last several years, many orcas have spent more time on the coast, as some key inland Chinook populations in the Fraser and other rivers have declined. These declines elevate even further the importance of protecting and restoring Chinook populations in the Columbia Basin and other coastal river systems.

Restoring healthy, robust populations of chinook salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers must be a critical SRKW conservation priority. Since orca don’t have refrigerators, their survival and recovery depends on an adequate prey base throughout the year. With its large size, historic productivity, significant restoration potential, large pockets of pristine, high elevation habitat and low human population, the Columbia-Snake River Basin is an essential current and potential source for the large numbers of chinook salmon that orca need.

Protecting and restoring these critical populations depends on substantially improving the health of this ecosystem. A modernized Columbia River Treaty that includes a new third purpose – ecosystem-based function - and a legally valid, science-based Federal Salmon Plan (BiOp) that includes the removal of the lower Snake River dams, expanded spill at dams that remain, and other key measures are essential to the fate and future of the Southern Resident Orcas.


Restoring Columbia Basin salmon is a key to orca survival

The tremendous salmon recovery potential in the Snake and Columbia Rivers and their tributaries makes this basin a top priority for rebuilding the Chinook salmon populations our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales need to survive and recover.

With just 73 whales remaining in the wild, the Northwest’s Southern Resident Killer Whales are among our nation’s most endangered species. The leading cause of decline: lack of sufficient prey resources – Chinook salmon. With its historic productivity, low human population, and remaining pockets of large, high, pristine and well protected habitat, the Columbia and Snake River Basin represents our nation’s best opportunity to restore the large numbers of Chinook salmon that endangered, hungry orcas need to survive and recover.



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