Leading Northwest scientists and orca advocates are urging NOAA Fisheries to consider removal of the four lower Snake River dams in order to protect endangered Puget Sound orca populations that need Columbia-Snake River salmon as a critical food source.
“Restoring Columbia River Chinook salmon is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future survival of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales,” said Dr. Rich Osborne, research associate with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA. “We cannot hope to restore the killer whale population without also restoring the salmon upon which these whales have depended for thousands of years. Their futures are intricately linked.”
The comments from the six prominent orca scientists, delivered in a letter to Northwest members of Congress and NOAA regional administrator Robert Lohn, came in response to the Oct. 31 release of a new draft Biological Opinion from NOAA Fisheries for Columbia-Snake River salmon management. Salmon advocates say the new plan, the result of a court-ordered rewrite of an earlier, illegal 2004 federal salmon plan, fails to do enough to recover imperiled salmon in the seven-state Columbia-Snake river basin, and ignores altogether the four dams on the lower Snake River that do the most harm to these fish.
“History will not be very forgiving of the resource managers who failed in their responsibilities to these icons of the Pacific Northwest, Chinook and orca,” said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research.
“The draft plan relies heavily on actions that science and time have proven will not restore these fish to the levels necessary for self-sustaining populations of salmon, or abundant enough to provide a healthy food resource for these killers whales,” said Dr. David Bain, a killer whale biologist at Friday Harbor Labs. “Not only are salmon from the Columbia River an important historic food source, recovered abundant salmon in this river are an indispensable requirement for the future recovery of Southern Residents.”
“The new Federal salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers is no better than previous plans in providing access to the basin’s best remaining salmon habitat in the upper reaches of the Snake River,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network. “The resulting declining salmon runs have a very real impact on the 88 endangered southern resident orcas that depend on these fish, as they have for centuries. As the salmon disappear, the orcas go hungry.”
“The best science tells us,” Garrett added, “that to revitalize Snake River salmon, we’ll need to bypass the dams that block fish passage, and that dam removal, combined with a variety of economic investments, will bring benefits to upriver communities in eastern Washington as well as to Puget Sound.”
The Columbia and Snake River Basin was once the world’s most productive salmon watershed, with tens of millions of fish returning annually. Today, returns hover near 1% of those historic levels. More than 200 large dams on the basin’s rivers are the major cause of this crisis, with 13 populations now listed under the Endangered Species Act, and four directly impacted by the lower Snake River dams. Yet, the Columbia-Snake Basin still holds more acres of pristine salmon habitat than any watershed in the lower 48 states.
It is this opportunity, notes Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People For Puget Sound, that we must take advantage of, if we hope to protect and restore these two iconic Northwest species whose fates are inexorably intertwined.
“Our leaders must look for solutions not only in Puget Sound, but also in the rivers that bring the salmon to the sea throughout the Northwest,” Fletcher said. “The great salmon rivers like the Columbia and Snake can once again produce the healthy runs of Chinook, on which our majestic orcas feed, but only if we recover salmon habitat. We must act quickly to restore clean water, abundant, sustainable salmon populations, and a safe home for orcas. The scientists tell us there is no time to waste.”