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Scientists Propose Breaching Dams to Save Orcas

by Eva Seelye

Bonneville DamIt’s a race to save our southern resident killer whales from extinction and the limited availability of Chinook is deemed a contributing factor to their downfall. According to the Seattle Times, leading killer-whale scientists and researchers believe part of the solution is to breach the Lower Snake River dams.

Orcas need Chinook (their primary prey) year-round and the Lower Snake River and Columbia River spring salmon runs are often their last supper before the food-scarce winter months settle in. These particular Chinook’s size, fat content, and timing are vital to our southern resident killer whale’s diets, keeping the whales healthy and fed until the Fraser River summer runs, but the dams are negatively affecting the sheer number of Chinook returning to the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington Sam Wasser, and Deborah Giles, resident scientist at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs and the research director for Wild Orca, wrote a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and co-chairs of a governor’s task force on orca recovery expressing these life or death concerns.

They wrote: “We believe that restoration measures in this watershed are an essential piece of a larger orca conservation strategy.” So vital in fact that… “We believe that southern resident orca survival and recovery may be impossible to achieve without it.”

Chief scientist for Orca Conservancy David Bain, scientist Katherine Ayers, and other related scientists signed the letter as well just after J50 passed – the latest of three recently-deceased southern resident killer whales.

Three southern resident killer whales have passed in the last four months; one from L pod and two from J pod with the most recent being J50 declared deceased on September 24, 2018.

However, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) isn’t so keen on the idea. BPA managers urge the importance the four Lower Snake River dams are to the region, and that orca whales have plenty other outlets to hunt Chinook.

Scientists are not necessarily asking for the full removal of all the dams, but rather to increase spillover of the Columbia River and Snake River dams to create natural river conditions, and ideally breach the Lower Snake River dams. The removal of the Lower Snake River dams has been debated for over a decade, and the ruling on the federal judge-backed dam removal won’t conclude until 2021, which is too late in scientists’ opinions. “Orca need more chinook salmon available on a year-round basis as quickly as possible,” the scientists wrote.

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