Puget Sound Orca/Snake River Salmon Connection

What do Puget Sound Orca and Columbia Basin Rivers have in common...They both need more wild  salmon, particularly from the Snake River.  These two seemingly separate and distinct ecosystems are in fact integrally connected by the Southern Resident Population of Killer Whales (SRKW, e.g. Puget Sound Orca) and the chinook salmon that return to the fabled waters of the Snake and Columbia Rivers.

For several months out of the year, late winter/early spring, orca travel down the Pacific Coast to the mouth of the Columbia River to feed on the chinook salmon that are returning to the Snake and Columbia River’s.   The SRKW population evolved to primarily feed on salmon and mostly on the fat rich chinook salmon.  The largest salmon runs in the world historically returned to the Columbia Basin and over 50% of these salmon came from Snake River and its tributaries.   These fish were, and remain, a critical food source for Puget Sound Orca.

Puget Sound Orca and Snake/Columbia River chinook salmon also unfortunately share another connection.  They are both listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). There were only 88 orca remaining when they were listed under the ESA in 2005. Today there are only 78 individuals and in 2015 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) identified orca as one of eight species most likely to go extinct in the near future unless immediate action is taken.  The Snake and Columbia River salmon runs were listed under the ESA in the early/mid 1990’s.  These wild salmon, once the most abundant salmon runs in the world, have been reduced to a fraction of their historic abundance.   The Snake River which historically provided about 50% of the salmon runs from the Columbia Basin also has the greatest potential to restore salmon runs.  There is excellent habitat in the high elevation watersheds of Central Idaho, SE Washington, and NE Oregon.  There are over 5,000 miles of rivers and streams mostly protected in wilderness areas that provide superb cool water habitat-but we need to get more salmon up to these areas to spawn.  The dams on the lower Snake and Columbia River’s impact both upstream migration of adults and downstream migration of young salmon.  The four dams on the lower Snake River are the biggest killer of salmon and removing them is the single best action we take in the long-term to restore these runs.  In the near term increasing spill (water over the dams) can provide significant benefit to the downstream migration of young salmon.

Orca are literally Starving
The diet for orca consist primarily of chinook salmon – over 80%.  As the salmon populations have declined scientists say that the orca are “nutritionally stressed”, starving in plain language.    To save the orca we must rebuild healthy populations of salmon in both Puget Sound and in the Columbia/Snake River Basin.  According to NOAA “the single greatest change in food availability for killer whales since the late 1800’s has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River Basin.”  Clearly, restoring salmon abundance in these rivers, and particularly the Snake River, is essential to recovering the orca.

The lack of food, starvation, affecting the orca increase the impacts and stress from other factors that threaten these whales.  The toxic stew that make up parts of Puget Sound accumulates toxins in their fat tissues.  These fat “reserves” get used when the orca can’t find enough food and get passed to their young impacting their survival and life spans.

Puget Sound Orca Need a Healthier Puget Sound
Puget Sound faces numerous threats. This includes polluted run-off from cities and upstream from animal feedlots and other pollution.  There is a legacy of toxic loading in our waters and existing and new threats from oil terminals, oil spills and shipping traffic.  These challenges must be addressed to protect Puget Sound and our orca.

We need to:

  • Prevent oil spills and stop new oil, gas, and coal terminals and facilities in the Salish Sea.
  • Control and clean up toxic pollution
  • Reduce underwater noise disturbances
  • Control polluted run-off from cities and animal feedlots upstream
  • Protect upper watersheds for clean water and salmon habitat
  • Restore orca food -salmon runs- in Puget Sound and Columbia/Snake Rivers

However, restoring salmon abundance to feed our orca is fundamental and cannot wait. And, good news is there are immediate actions we can take.

Restore Snake and Columbia River Salmon
We can take immediate action that can benefit salmon in the near term from the Snake and Columbia Rivers.  We need to modify our Washington State water quality standards to match Oregon’s with a 120% dissolved gas standard which would enable us to spill more water over the dams during the spring and early summer downstream migration of young salmon.  The science demonstrates that setting the standard to allow for this higher level of spill help move young salmon more quickly and safely past (over) the dams.  Governor Inslee and the Dept. of Ecology can initiate a process to do this which will benefit our Snake and Columbia River salmon runs and improve a critical food source for our orca.
Please take action by sending a free Orca postcard to Gov. Inslee via this convenient LINK

Juan Rueda (juan.rueda@sierraclub.org) and Bill Arthur (billwarthur@gmail.com)

For Additional Information:
Puget Sound Campaign: healthysound.org
Washington Chapter Snake/Columbia River Salmon Campaign: http://www.sierraclub.org/washington/columbia-snake-river-salmon-recovery-campaign