The orcas that live off the U.S. Pacific coastline—the Southern Resident orca (Orcinus orca)—are a crucial part of the Pacific Northwest economy, ecology, and culture, especially the culture of tribal nations. Under stress from lack of food, toxic pollution, and vessel noise, they are critically endangered, with less than 75 individuals remaining. Scientists predict this population will go extinct if we do not take action quickly. Join our volunteer team to help prevent the extinction of the iconic Southern Resident orca.
Southern Resident orcas organize their society along the genetic lines of females, who can live 90 years or more. There are three distinct pods (J, K, and L), each with their own unique dialects. Throughout most of the year, the three pods roam separately, and they are known to celebrate when they come back together in the Salish Sea. In the 1960s and 1970s, marine parks stole or killed over 45 individuals from the Southern Resident orca population — approximately 40% of the population. To this day, one of the Southern Residents captured, Sk’aliCh’elhtenaut (or Lolita), remains in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium. The Lummi Tribe, who has had a special relationship with these orcas for generations, continue to call for her return to her ancestral waters. In 2005, the Southern Resident orcas were designated as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and they are one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the United States. In 2018, Tahlequah (J35) captured the hearts of people all over the world as she carried her dead calf for 17 days and over 1,000 miles. Sadly, this story is not uncommon, as 80% of pregnancies fail and 50% of live births die within the first year. Scientists predict this population will go extinct unless we take bold action. See how you can help below.
There are three main reasons for the decline in Southern Resident Orcas: lack of food, noise pollution, and chemical pollution. Noise pollution from vessels can prevent Southern Resident Orcas from using echolocation to catch prey. Human-made chemical pollutants run into the Salish Sea, where they bioaccumulate in the fat of orca causing endocrine and immune system disruption when they starve. These two factors are linked to the primary reason for their decline- which is lack of food. Salmon make up 98% of orcas’ summer diet and one type of salmon, Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), makes up more than 80% of their diet. Three species of Chinook in the Columbia-Snake River Basin – Upper Columbia spring run, Lower Columbia, and Snake River spring-summer run – are critical to orca survival but are endangered or threatened. The orca population decline is primarily due to a decline in Chinook salmon abundance.
Salmon and Dams in the Columbia & Snake River Basin
Salmon populations are declining across the region, but especially in one area where Southern Resident orcas spend quite a lot of time foraging for salmon: the mouth of the Columbia River. Over half of the Chinook salmon Southern Residents eat come from the Columbia River Basin. In fact, the Columbia and Snake River Basin once produced 10 to 16 million wild salmon every year. Today, we’re lucky if one-eighth of that number returns to the basin. The Columbia River’s main tributary, the Snake River, used to produce 1 out of every 2 salmon in the basin. Indigenous peoples, such as the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, and Warm Spring tribes, have relied on an economy and culture based on salmon for generations. These tribes ceded land to the United States in return for (among other things) guaranteed rights to harvest fish in all their usual areas. The United States has not held up that agreement and tribes continue the struggle to protect and restore salmon and accustomed fishing grounds.
The river system is broken by a series of dams that choke this once free-flowing water system. Four dams (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite) on the lower Snake River kill millions of Chinook juveniles as they attempt to migrate downriver to the ocean. Reservoirs of water created by the dams are becoming lethally hot as the climate crisis continues. Juvenile salmon must swim through stale water, rather than a free flowing river, taking more time to migrate downriver which diminishes their lifetime fitness. These four dams also block prime, high elevation, coldwater habitat for spawning adult fish. In fact, the Snake River Basin contains 65% of the predicted coldwater habitat on the west coast by 2080.
More than $17 billion of taxpayer money has been spent trying to recover Columbia and Snake River wild salmon populations, without a single success. Since the construction of the lower Snake River dams began in the 1960s, Snake River wild salmon populations have declined by 60%. Furthermore, the aging dams require more than $1 billion in upgrades. The status quo has not worked, is not working, and will not work. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” – Rita Mae Brown.
The Endangered Species Coalition’s Impact
Our advocates work with partners to advance science-based solutions to restore salmon across the Southern Resident orcas’ range. We also work to reduce noise and chemical pollution that hurt Southern Residents. On the ground, we are building grassroots awareness and engagement that will result in political support for the restoration of the Snake River.
Some of our successes include a fly-in of orca advocates to Washington, D.C. so they could speak directly to federal agencies that manage the dams and members of Congress who have the power to restore the Snake River. In 2019, a door-to-door canvas operation in Western Washington spread awareness and garnered petitions of support. We organized a memorial to mourn the death of Tahlequah’s calf in 2018. See below to learn how you can join our team and make an impact.
Solution / What Can I Do?
We can live in a Pacific Northwest with millions of salmon returning to the Columbia-Snake River Basin, supplying the nutrients for Southern Resident orcas to rebuild their population. We can be a country that meets our obligations with tribal nations that have relied on salmon for time immemorial. We can restore a wild, free-flowing river, making it less susceptible to climate change, while also drawing anglers and recreational river-goers from across the country. We can remove these destructive dams and make sure the services they provide are met, while creating new, local jobs and continuing our clean energy legacy. But we are running out of time.
Scientists, including NOAA, have said for years that the removal (or breaching) of the lower Snake River dams is the single most impactful action we can take to restore salmon and recover orcas. To breach the dams, we need a comprehensive legislative package from Congress. We need to tell the Pacific Northwest members of Congress that represent us that the breaching of the lower Snake River dams must be a priority.