Some say it’s too late to turn this march toward extinction around. If you know these fish and these whales, like we do, then you understand that they are two of nature’s most resourceful species. We must not give up on them now.
RIGHT now, southern-resident killer whales circle the waters off the mouth of the Columbia River eager to score their favorite meal — a fat spring chinook salmon. It’s late March and the Pacific Northwest’s rivers should be a surge of snowmelt and salmon. But they aren’t.
The southern-resident killer whales are on the brink of extinction because they can’t find enough food. With eight new calves — the biggest baby boom this population has seen in almost 40 years — the moment to help our iconic blackfish is today.
What can we do? The whales are showing us: We need to focus on Columbia Basin salmon.
Last summer was a disaster for salmon and a shocking look into the possible future of Columbia and Snake River fisheries. Last July, reports emerged that more than a quarter million sockeye returning from the ocean had died as a result of high water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers. In the end, 96 percent of returning endangered Snake River sockeye died before reaching Lower Granite Dam.
The oldest member of the southern resident killer whale clan, a whale nicknamed “Granny,” who is estimated to be more than 100 years old, remembers the days before the dams and climate distress. Her memory of endless, enormous fish is what brings the southern-resident killer whales back at this exact time of year to the mouth of the Columbia River, where NOAA tracking data confirm the whales congregate.
The Columbia River Basin once produced more salmon than any other river system in the world. It remains the gateway to millions of acres of pristine, high-elevation spawning habitat. But today, wild Columbia Basin spring chinook are returning to their natal streams at roughly 1 percent of their historic numbers.
There are those who say it’s too late to turn this march toward extinction around. If you know these fish and these whales, like we do, then you understand that they are two of nature’s savviest and most resourceful species. We must not give up on them now.
Each of the whales has a number, name and distinct personality. They travel in matriarchal pods and live in a web of caring, tight-knit social arrangements. Southern resident J26 (or “Mike”) frequently swims alongside his younger siblings, the orca equivalent of baby-sitting. “Oreo” (J22) is the mother of two boys, and almost 20 years ago, when her sister J20 (aka “Ewok”) died, she took over the parental responsibility of her young niece J32 (also known as “Rhapsody”) who was only 2 years old. If anyone can band together to come back from the brink, these whales can.
The fish the whales depend on are equally remarkable. Salmon form the spine of the Pacific Northwest’s ecosystem. Without them, everything else totters and risks collapse. Somehow they continue to hang on over dams and against impossible odds. It’s as if they — like the whales — carry a memory passed down through generations of a time before the Columbia became the most hydroelectrically developed river system in the world.
If we return to a healthy river, we’ll bring back the fish. Just look to the Elwha River restoration. More than 4,000 chinook were counted above the former Elwha Dam the first season after it came down.
In December 2014, the killer whale “Rhapsody” washed up on shore dead with a near full-term fetus. A preliminary necropsy showed that her blubber layer was thin and dry of oil, consistent with inadequate diet for an extended period.
The untamed outdoors is this region’s “second paycheck,” and our rivers, mountains and coast would be lifeless and lonely without the wild animals that make them pulse and sing.
Both Washington state and the federal government are currently reviewing the endangered status of the southern-resident killer whales. The whales have been federally listed as endangered for more than 10 years — and yet they continue to decline.
A federal judge in Portland is expected to rule soon on the adequacy of the most recent Columbia Basin salmon-restoration plan. The previous four plans have each been rejected by the court. We now need political leaders in the Northwest and Washington, D.C., to work with the people of the region to craft coherent solutions that honor these iconic, connected species.
And we need to learn from the whales and focus our efforts where they do: on the Columbia Basin.