Facing toxic pollution and an alarming food shortage, Southern Resident orcas are on a steep decline. But removing several dams could be the key to saving them.
When I was a little girl, my family went camping in the San Juan Islands. I slept out in the open, curled up in my sleeping bag, close enough to the water’s edge to hear the waves lapping up against the shore. When I woke, my face was covered in angry, red mosquito bites. I sat up and wiped the sleep out of my eyes, and that’s when I saw the line of sleek black and white bodies surfacing in the distance. It was one of the Puget Sound’s pods of Southern Resident Orcas. I temporarily forgot all about my very itchy face. I watched their tall dorsal fins carve a path through the water, and even then, I knew how lucky I was to see them.
That was 1992, and the population of Southern Resident Orcas hovered at around 90. That was also the year that J28 was born into the family of orcas known as J pod. She was one of six calves born into the Southern Resident population that year, and by all accounts, was a healthy and thriving youngster. When she was nine years old, she turned up with an obvious nick in her dorsal fin that made her easy to identify for scientists and excited whale watchers. She gave birth to her first calf, her daughter J46, in 2009. And she gave birth to her second live-born calf, her son J54, at the very end of 2015.
Unfortunately, J28 never quite recovered from complications after J54’s birth. This summer, she was visibly malnourished. And on October 28th, the Center for Whale Research confirmed her death. That left the survival of ten-month old J54, who was still nursing, very much in question. In the wake of his mother’s death, J54’s family did everything they could do give him a fighting chance. His older sister offered him salmon and repeatedly shoved him to the surface to breathe. A heartbreaking photo of his scored and scratched dorsal fin shows the results of his family’s attempts to hold onto him. But it wasn’t enough, and now J54 is gone too.
Today, with the tragic deaths of J28 and J54, there are just 80 of these incredible creatures left. What’s going on here? Why was this otherwise healthy orca unable to recover from birth complications? And why has this population continued to decline since my childhood encounter — despite being federally listed as endangered, and despite the development of recovery plans to try and save them?
Pollution and Food Shortage a Double Hit to Southern Residents
Southern Resident Orcas face many threats to their survival, but two in particular stand out. The Puget Sound, where they spend most of their time, is incredibly polluted. And Chinook salmon, these orcas’ preferred food source, are also endangered. That’s a potent combination because orcas tend to store toxins in their blubber. That can be OK as long as they are healthy and well-fed. If they go hungry, however, they start to metabolize their blubber, and all of those toxins are then free to wreak havoc on their health.
As a new mother, J28 was using up all of the energy (and releasing the toxins) in her fat stores to care for and nurse her calf. It seems likely that without enough salmon to eat, J28 didn’t have enough energy to fend off illness and keep her calf alive. There was so much hope for the Southern Resident Orca population after nine calves were born between 2014 and 2015. But three of those calves, including J54, have since died. And three adults died earlier this year.
These orcas are starving. When they don’t get enough salmon to eat, they become weakened and vulnerable to a host of other threats, from toxins to noise to harassment to birth complications. With birth rates low and calf mortality high – even under the best of circumstances – we must act now to break this cycle. And salmon are the key.
Free the River, Save the Orcas
The Columbia and Snake rivers of the Pacific Northwest once hosted the world’s greatest wild salmon runs, with up to 16 million fish each year. Today, it is the most heavily dammed river system on Earth. In fact, four dams on the lower Snake River are driving all remaining Snake River salmon toward extinction. Since the dams were completed, these salmon populations have plummeted by more than 90%.
But there is something we can do. We have a once in a generation opportunity to bring about the greatest wild salmon restoration in history. Scientists have concluded the single best thing we can do to save wild salmon in the Northwest is to take down the four Lower Snake River dams. Federal agencies in the Northwest charged with protecting endangered wild salmon and steelhead from the lethal impacts of federal dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers are holding fifteen public meetings this fall in Washington State, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
By restoring salmon, we can restore our precious population of Southern Resident Orcas. Please tell these agencies that we want a world where orcas and salmon can thrive.