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Southern Resident killer whale population is running out of salmon, running out of time

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales off San Juan Island, Washington State.
Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales off San Juan Island, Washington State.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales off San Juan Island, Washington State.

The Southern Resident killer whales are starving to death. Seven members of the critically endangered population died in 2016, including Granny, the oldest killer whale in the world and the leader of the Southern Residents. This unique community of whales only eats fish, a cultural tradition passed down for thousands of years from mother to young. At an estimated 105 years old, Granny was the keeper of knowledge; she knew where to find salmon in times of plenty, and where to look for them in leaner years. Recently, every year has been a lean year, and the Southern Resident whales have been spread far and wide in search of salmon, but Granny was always in the lead.

Southern Resident killer whales evolved side-by-side with salmon in the Pacific Ocean. They learned to select the best and fattiest of fish, the Chinook salmon, and discovered the best locations and times to find these Kings, committing that knowledge to memory and passing it along down generations. Even as Chinook salmon populations have plummeted in the Northwest, the Southern Resident killer whales stick to their traditions and follow their elders, and continue to visit the mouths of specific rivers when the salmon are running.

But now, they’re running out of fish, and running out of time. Critically endangered and faced with a multitude of threats, and now without their venerated leader, this population of killer whales lives on the brink of extinction. The Southern Residents need an abundant and widely available distribution of Chinook salmon throughout the year, in the entire extent of their range, not just in the fraction that federal agencies have designated as summer critical habitat.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whale breaching, British Columbia, Canada.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whale breaching, British Columbia, Canada.

The Columbia River Basin used to provide those abundant Chinook runs for the Southern Residents. The whales were, and still are, regular visitors to the mouth of the Columbia from January to April, ready for the historic huge runs of Spring Chinook to begin their upstream battle to return to the place of their birth. The Snake River Basin once produced half of the nearly two million Spring Chinook that flooded through the mouth of the Columbia every year. The habitat they were returning to, thousands of miles of wilderness and cold, spring-fed rivers and streams, is still in excellent condition. But now the salmon can’t get there. Their access is hindered, by four dams on the lower Snake River, now the focus of salmon advocates throughout the Northwest. The historic productivity of the habitat behind these dams and its protected status gives scientists hope for salmon recovery, even in a world of climate change. But this habitat doesn’t do the salmon any good if they can’t get there. These four dams must be removed to give Snake River salmon their best shot at recovery.

And for the Southern Residents to have their best shot at recovery, they need those salmon. Killer whales don’t have freezers; they can’t stock salmon away for leaner times. If you’re a killer whale looking for food, timing is everything, and over thousands of years they learned when and where the best salmon runs in the region were happening.

Snake River Spring Chinook, with their formerly huge run sizes and high fat content, used to provide the Southern Residents with much-needed winter food. But today, the numbers for Spring Chinook are way down, even when hatchery fish are added in.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales, British Columbia, Canada.

Photo by Carl Safina. Killer whales, British Columbia, Canada.

At best, hatcheries are keeping the problem from getting worse, but they’re not meeting the Southern Residents’ nutritional needs. The Southern Resident killer whale population is in dangerous decline, and current salmon numbers are nowhere near enough to help them even start to recover.

The narrow focus of the federal agencies on simply maintaining current salmon numbers – far below the historic runs of millions of salmon that the Southern Residents evolved alongside of – ignores the critical question of what these whales actually need, which is “a lot more Chinook than we have now.” With seven whales lost last year, the status quo is already failing these whales.

That’s where those four lower Snake River dams come in. A new court ruling, handed down last May, ordered federal agencies to re-examine hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Scientists and advocacy groups across the nation and throughout the Northwest are calling for action on those four salmon-killing dams.   To save the salmon, we must restore access to that pristine, protected wilderness behind the lower Snake River dams. To save the Southern Residents, we need that salmon. Two icons of the Northwest, their identities linked to each other, and to the place they call home. It’s up to us to make sure they can keep calling it home for the next thousand years. Granny may be gone, but her library of knowledge was passed on to her family, and they’ll continue to visit the Columbia River in search salmon, remembering the once vast quantities like an echo from the past.

The federal agencies need to hear from you on this issue. Tell them to consider the science, stop relying on outdated information, and step up to save salmon and killer whales, before it’s too late for both.

Sign a petition from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) to demand that the federal agencies consider the Southern Residents and their need for healthy, abundant, and available salmon runs from the Snake River.

This article was originally posted to National Geographic’s Ocean Views on January 31, 2017. 

One Comment on “Southern Resident killer whale population is running out of salmon, running out of time

  1. Thank You! I have shared to Facebook and have signed! 💕🐳🐳💕🐋🐬💙

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