Southern Resident Orcas

All about the Southern Resident Orcas follows or skip down to re-imagining the future.

The Southern Resident Orcas are the only fish-eating orcas in the lower 48.

There are just 74 alive as of Sept. 2018.

What do the four Lower Snake River Dams have to do with the critically endangered Southern Resident Orcas seen so often in the Salish Sea and Puget Sound? Everything, when it comes to the whales’ survival. It is a food issue—make that a starvation issue for the Southern Resident Killer Whales, or SRKWs, NOAA’s formal name for these whales. Chinook salmon make up 80% of the orcas’ diet.

Why are salmon produced by the Columbia & Snake Rivers so important to the orcas’ survival? The answer is that the whales evolved eating plentiful Chinook salmon from these rivers, and are dependent on them.[1] They need an abundant amount of salmon to survive.

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The Snake/Columbia Basin was one of the largest, if not the largest, salmon producing river system in the world, generating by some estimates 16 to 30 million salmon each year. But human activity generally, and the dams specifically, have decimated salmon runs by blocking both juvenile salmon migration out to the ocean, as well as adult salmon migration back from the ocean to their spawning grounds in the Snake River.

The dams have devastated the number of ocean going adult salmon, and have landed all Snake River salmon runs on the Endangered Species Act list. In turn, without this once plentiful salmon supply, the Southern Resident orcas landed on the list in 2005 as critically endangered. That listing has not helped the orcas survive. In fact, without the abundant salmon from the Snake/Columbia Rivers, survival has not been the whales’ strong suit, especially since the construction of the four lower Snake River dams.

Yet even now, the Snake/Columbia watershed is important to the orcas, since more than 50% of the salmon that the orcas’ feed on comes out of the watershed. NOAA’s Southern Resident orcas satellite tagging data for 2015 and 2016, showing the orcas focusing on the coastal areas near the mouth of the Columbia River, evidences this point. See 2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging  and  2016 Southern Resident Willer Whale Satellite Tagging.

Do we want the Southern Resident orcas, the beloved icons of the Pacific Northwest, to be around to inspire interest, curiosity and awe and wonder in our grandchildren, or their grandchildren? If we do, then we must increase the orcas’ food supply now—not next year, not in 10 years, but now.

Clearly, current efforts are not enough to prevent extinction of these whales. They are disappearing as we watch, literally, since whale watching is a huge industry in the Salish Sea. Southern Resident Orca families are being destroyed at an alarming rate. No new calves have survived for several years. Even more important is the fact that reproducing females (the mothers) have been dying over the last decade. Without mothers, the population cannot survive. If we lose a few more, extinction is likely.

Yet we still have time to help the orcas by bringing back the salmon from the Columbia Basin by breaching the dams this year.

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[1] NOAA, the federal agency charged with recovering the Southern Resident orcas, underscored the importance of the Columbia/Snake watershed for our fish-eating orcas, stating that, “[p]erhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Columbia River basin.” (NOAA, 2008 Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales.)


re-imagining the future

Critically endangered species are in danger of extinction in the near-term. Late 2018 is the goal for recommendations from Washington’s Task Force. The federal CRSO Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled to present alternatives in draft format March of 2020. Neither of these processes will come into play in time.

Breaching the lower Snake River dams would be a fast action. It would provide the best and quickest opportunity to increase the salmon in time to give the orcas the salmon they need to survive, while giving other habitat restoration efforts their needed time to work to recover salmon, and, in turn, help recover the orcas.

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Breach the Lower Snake River Dams to save Southern Resident Killer Whales