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Recent Southern Resident Orca success could reshape recovery approach

  • Written by Kurt Miller

Earlier this month, headlines across various Northwest news outlets carried a message of hope; the Southern Resident orcas were in the best condition in a decade. This was largely due to the birth of three new calves and seemingly healthier body sizes among the adults.

Celebration is still a ways away, as this unique and well-studied population faces many challenges, but we must now ask what has led to this upward trend and how we can keep the momentum going.

Trying to tackle that bigger issue is difficult, messy, and at times controversial. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Orca Task force identified lack of prey, excessive noise from vessel traffic, and contaminants as the three key issues facing the Southern Residents. In addition, NOAA Fisheries identified disease as a possible fourth.

Temporarily, the pandemic eased vessel traffic, which seems to have helped the orcas, but their other challenges remain.

Southern Residents are picky eaters that almost exclusively feed on Chinook salmon. It is unclear why, as other orcas—even the transients that also frequent the Salish Sea—feed on a broader variety of fish and marine mammals. But, after thousands of years, the orcas of the J, K, and L pod are unlikely to try a new diet.

Among the proposed solutions to help the Southern Residents, some have advocated breaching the lower Snake River dams. Yet, the recent rebound in orca health appears to have no connection with the abundance of Snake River Chinook, which have seen poor adult returns in the past few years. Publicly available population data collected and graphed show no discernible correlation between Southern Resident orca populations and Snake River Chinook populations.

A 2021 study recently published by NOAA scientists, confirms that the link between Snake River Chinook and Southern Resident orcas is minimal. The study showed that the Southern Residents only consumed Snake River Chinook during midwinter to early-spring as the orcas crossed paths with the migrating fish. During that short window, those salmon made up just 2-5% of their total diet. Taken over the course of the year, Snake River salmon represent less than 1% of their annual diet.

A majority of their winter/spring diet consisted of Chinook from Puget Sound rivers, the Columbia, and Canada’s Fraser. Even non-salmonid fish appeared more in their overall diet than Snake River Chinook.

This speaks to a larger point; most Chinook populations up and down the Pacific Coast of North America have experienced the same type of survival declines we’ve seen in the Snake River over the last 50 years.

Of the salmon that are surviving, many are shrinking in size and caloric value. It was noted recently that both Ivar’s seafood restaurant chain and Whole Foods have been turning back salmon from their Alaskan suppliers because they have gotten too small.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, a separate NOAA study found that climate change and its impact on the ocean are a driving factor in salmon declines, with extinction risks possible in as little as two to three decades.

This information on climate and salmon, combined with what we’re observing at this very moment with the Southern Residents, tells us that we need to rethink our priorities and management in the Northwest if we want to see these iconic species thrive.

It may seem ironic, but it is possible that both orcas and salmon need dams--and specifically their ability to produce zero-carbon energy--to survive. If we can reverse the course of climate change, we have the opportunity to help both species thrive again in the Pacific Northwest, but that will require adding carbon-free energy resources, not taking them away.

Kurt Miller bio Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners (NWRP)—a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest. Since joining in March 2019, Kurt has made it a priority to find collaborative, science-driven solutions to energy and environmental challenges. Kurt has spent almost 30 years in the Northwest energy and utilities industry, and established the first successful electricity brokerage business in the U.S. He began his career at the BPA as an economist and spent 20 years at PGE in a variety of leadership and expert roles focused on energy supply, customer programs, and organizational change management. While at PGE, Kurt spearheaded the development of the largest microgrid project in the region and led the successful completion of Oregon’s Electric Highway for electric vehicles.

Northwest RiverPartners Northwest RiverPartners is a not-for-profit, member-driven organization. Its diverse members include consumer-owned utilities, ports, and businesses from across the northwestern United States. NWRP is focused on raising awareness about how the Northwest’s hydropower system betters local communities and the natural environment. In doing so, NWRP encourages science-based solutions that help hydropower and salmon coexist and thrive. Members represent more than 4M electric utility customers, thousands of farmers and employees, and small and large businesses that provide hundreds of thousands of jobs for communities across the Northwest.

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