THE SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCAS ARE BEING DAMMED TO EXTINCTION

The Southern Resident Killer Whales are a population of fish-eating killer whales that live in the Pacific Northwest. Over 78% of their diet consists of Chinook salmon, specifically the Chinook salmon from the Snake River. Unfortunately, due to 4 hydropower dams in the lower region of this river- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite- the Chinook salmon that the Southern Residents rely on have nearly gone extinct. Ever since the dams were constructed in the 60s and 70s, over 98% of the salmon have are killed by the dams anually as they migrate downriver to the ocean. While the government has invested in many different fish recovery plans, none of these have substantially helped the salmon survival rate. Without a stable food source, the Southern Resident population has declined rapidly over the last few decades. Although this population once numbered in the hundreds, as of May of 2022 there are only 75 Southern Residents remaining. Since 2016 alone, at least 16 whales passed away, only 3 of which had reached the average life expectancy of killer whales. At least 70% of Southern Resident pregnancies fail, and less than 25% of calves survive to adulthood. This high mortality rate is directly tied to a lack of food. These whales are starving to death right before our very eyes. The Southern Residents are estimated to become functionally extinct by 2035 if nothing is done to save them now. Thankfully, there is still hope. The lower Snake River dams generate very little usable power, and they do not provide any type of flood control. Scientists believe that these dams could easily be replaced with less harmful forms of power generation, and that the salmon populations will recover rapidly quickly the dams are gone. We still have time to save the salmon- and the whales- but we need to act now. We need to breach the lower Snake River dams before it's too late.

BREAKING NEWS: The United States Council on Environmental Quality is currently taking public comments (link) on the impact of the dams on the Columbia River Basin, and on breaching the lower Snake River dams. THIS IS OUR CHANCE! A sample email can be found here, and contact information can be found here. Let lawmakers know that it's time to breach the dams!


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J50 "Scarlet", who was called the "happiest whale in the world" in 2016. She died in September of 2018. Photo Credit: Clint Rivers

Who are the Southern Residents?

The Southern Resident Killer Whales are a population of killer whales that live in the Pacific Northwest, primarily in the Salish Sea. Their diet consists almost entirely of Chinook salmon. Unfortunately, the Chinook salmon are dying out- and so are the Southern Residents. There are currently just 75 of these precious whales left. The nutritional stress caused by a lack of food means that many of these whales develop health issues and die young, and that most pregnancies end in failure. At least 70% of pregnancies are unsuccessful, and a majority of calves do not make it to adulthood.The Snake River, where the salmon that the Southern Residents rely on come from, is the most well-preserved salmon spawning habitat in the continental United States. The river once saw annual salmon runs consisting of over 100,000 fish. Now that number is less than 10,000, and salmon survival rates are just 0.35 - 2%. This is because of 4 hydropower dams located in the lower Snake River- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite. These dams kill the salmon as they travel to and from their spawning ground. The turbines on the dams kill young fish as they travel downstream, and the dams themselves create reservoirs of warm water that confuse and sicken the traveling fish. The Snake River Chinook salmon are considered endangered, and there have been multiple attempts to protect them. Federal taxpayers spend $550 million annually (and have spent over $18 billion in total) on various salmon recovery plans, all of which have failed.These dams generate very little usable energy, and most of the energy that they do produce is simply sold as surplus energy instead. It would be cheaper and more efficient to invest in other forms of clean power instead. These dams do not provide any type of flood control, and some of the dams even increase the local flood risk. Expensive construction is needed on at least one of the dams in order to reduce this risk.The cost of breaching the dams would be minimal compared to the current costs of salmon recovery and maintaining the dams. Dam removal would eventually even pay for itself through the revenue generated from successful salmon recovery. In similar situations, salmon populations recover very quickly after dams are removed. Scientists believe that, once the dams are gone, the Southern Residents will recover as well.Unfortunately, we are running out of time. Less than half of the population is able to breed, and less than half of the babies born in recent years have survived. The Southern Residents are expected to become functionally extinct by 2035, and completely extinct by the end of the century, if we do not act now.The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that removing the dams is the only way to make sure that the salmon- and ultimately the killer whales as well- recover. We need to breach the dams.



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Why should I care?

Killer whales are extremely intelligent and emotional animals. Each population has their own diet, language, and culture. Killer whales live in groups of family members known as pods, and calves spend their entire lives with their mothers. Mothers pass down their languages and traditions to their calves. Pods care for their sick and injured members, mourn their lost family, and are even known to carry the bodies of deceased whales around for days. Here are just some of the heartbreaking stories of Southern Residents.

J52 "Dipper" covered in bite marks shortly before his death. Photo Credit: Kenneth Balcomb

In 2016, J28 "Polaris" passed away, leaving her 10 month old son, J54 "Dipper", behind. His 7 year old sister, J46 "Star", tried to keep him alive by bringing him fish to eat- but the lack of fish meant that she couldn't get him enough food to eat. He became delirious from illness and hunger, and he stopped swimming. Desperate to keep him alive, his sister would grab his body with her teeth and bring him to the surface to breathe. This lasted for days, and his body became covered in bite marks. Sadly, he eventually succumbed to starvation and illness and died.

J35 "Tahlequah" carrying her deceased daughter. Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research

In July of 2018, J35 "Tahlequah", a female killer whale, lost her calf just minutes after birth. The grief-stricken mother carried her daughter's body for over 1000 miles on a "Tour of Grief" that lasted for 17 days. The entire time she refused to leave her daughter behind, carrying the body even when she was visibly weak and losing weight.

How K21 "Cappuccino" looked when he was healthy (top) and when he was spotted in July 2021 (bottom). Photo Credit: Center for Whale Research and adventuresbyhip

In July of 2021, K21 "Cappuccino", a beloved member of the Southern Residents, became extremely sick. When boaters spotted him he was incredibly emaciated. His markings were pale, and he was so malnourished that his dorsal fin had fallen completely over. He was so weak that he couldn’t even battle the current and was barely able to keep himself upright. He passed away soon after, likely later that day.

J35 "Tahlequah" and her son, J57 “Phoenix”. Photo Credit: Katie Jones, Center for Whale Research

Thankfully, there is still hope for the Southern Residents. On September 4th, 2020, "Tahlequah" gave birth to a new calf, a son named J57 "Phoenix" by researchers. Only a few days later another calf, J58 "Crescent", was born to J41 "Eclipse". In January of 2021, L86 "Surprise!" gave birth to a daughter named L125 "Element". In February of 2022, J37 "Hy’Shqa" gave birth to J59. In May of 2022, K20 “Spock” was seen with a newborn calf, K45. These births are incredibly important to the struggling population. With the dams in place, the chances of these calves surviving into adulthood are slim. In a population this small, every birth matters, and we need to protect these calves.


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BREAKING NEWS: The United States Council on Environmental Quality is currently taking public comments (link) on the impact of the dams on the Columbia River Basin, and on breaching the lower 4 Snake River dams. THIS IS OUR CHANCE! A sample email can be found here, and contact information can be found here. Let lawmakers know that it's time to breach the dams!

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