Help save southern resident orcas animal welfare institute

Orcas (killer whales) have inhabited the Pacific Northwest of the United States for millennia. Today, the population known as southern residents is facing a serious and accelerated population decline, with only 74 individuals remaining, down from a high of 98 in 1995. The southern residents were listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act in 2005. The main threat they face is lack of food. Several stocks of their principle prey, salmon—most particularly, Chinook (king) salmon—are also listed as endangered in the region.

The tragedy of the southern residents’ decline played out on a national stage in August. A female orca, known as J35, captured the country’s attention as she mourned the death of her newborn daughter, who lived only 30 minutes.


J35 carried the body for over 1,000 miles on her snout for 17 days as it slowly decomposed. Tragedy struck the population again the following month when J50, a juvenile female who grew weaker and more emaciated over the course of several days, died at the age of 3; her loss, as a potential future mother within this dwindling group, is incalculable.

In response to the plight of this orca population, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington created the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force and charged it with proposing new recommendations for stemming this downward trend toward extinction. The task force has been meeting since May and has heard from scientists, nongovernmental organizations, Indian tribes, state and federal agencies, and concerned citizens in order to craft a comprehensive plan to restore and maintain a healthy orca population. With an emphasis on prey availability, toxic contaminants, vessel noise and disturbances, and hydropower, the task force has released draft recommendations intended to recover this population.

Salmon are endangered in the region for many reasons, but a major cause is the damming of the Columbia River basin. Dams hinder salmon as they head upriver to spawning habitat; they also damage and alter spawning habitat and harm juvenile fish as they make their hazardous return journey to the sea. At issue are four dams in particular along the Chinook-spawning Lower Snake River (a tributary of the Columbia) that generate limited energy compared to other dams. The task force highlights the problems posed by the dams in its draft report, stating that “dams completely block passage to over 55 percent of the spawning and rearing habitat historically used by salmon.”

The removal of these dams is essential to the survival not only of Chinook salmon, but also of the southern resident orcas. The task force notes human interference and habitat degradation are the catalysts for these species’ decline and lack of recovery. Even so, the task force supports the current effort in Congress to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to increase the killing of sea lions and other animals (such as cormorants) who are natural predators of salmon. This approach to salmon restoration is misguided and will almost certainly prove ineffective, as predator control rarely works wherever it is applied.

• “ Potential hydropower action 15: Advocate that the US Army Corps unilaterally make a decision to stop operating the Lower Snake River dams and seek authority to breach the dams in near-term. Work to develop a mitigation package for affected communities and stakeholders, and to fund necessary hatcheries and habitat actions in the absence of mitigation funding depending on dam operations. Work to ensure the dams’ energy is replaced with carbon-free alternatives.” (page 45)

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force’s draft recommendations are available for public comment until October 7. After receiving public input, the task force will meet again to revise its recommendations. It is important to weigh in now in order to make sure that the task force focuses on dam removal and other major habitat restoration while rejecting efforts to kill sea lions and sea birds.

I support “potential hydropower actions 15 and 16” of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force’s draft recommendations and wish to see them implemented. As the task force notes, these dams prevent passage by salmon to over 55 percent of their historical spawning and rearing habitat. Removal of the dams will restore spawning habitat and greatly contribute to a recovery of healthy salmon and orca populations. I also reject the misguided “potential predation combination recommendation 2A.” Predator control is almost universally ineffective wherever it is applied and will only result in the needless deaths of sea lions, while doing little or nothing for orca recovery.