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Connect the Dots to Save Orcas, Salmon

by Kathy Fletcher and Howard Garrett
The Seattle Times, May 2, 2008

(AP Photo) A female orca travels with her 3-year-old offspring near the San Juan Islands. Most people realize that saving Puget Sound's beloved resident orca whales depends on saving the Sound itself, removing the toxic chemicals that are killing the whales, preventing oil spills, and restoring the orcas' essential food, salmon.

But it may be news that our local orcas also depend on restoring salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin. Recent reports of the dramatic declines in West Coast salmon populations make this connection between the mighty Columbia and Snake rivers and our endangered orcas all the more crucial to examine.

Orca and salmon scientists alike have identified the Columbia River Basin, which once produced more salmon than any other river system on Earth, as an essential food source for southern resident orcas during their seasonal travels away from Puget Sound to coastal waters. In fact, the federal government's orca-recovery plan cites the decline in Columbia River Basin salmon as "perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s."

Strangely, though, the plan does not call for the one action scientists say is central to any Columbia Basin salmon-recovery plan: removal of four costly and outdated dams on the Lower Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia.

Removing these dams will open up more than 15 million acres of nearly pristine spawning habitat to endangered salmon, while saving taxpayers' and electric ratepayers' money. Energy conservation and renewable energy can replace the small amount of power provided by these four dams, keeping in mind that there are more than 200 dams in the basin.

Climate change makes removing the dams even more important, because the salmon and steelhead that will be saved are more likely to survive warmer temperatures. These fish spawn at higher elevations than any other - some at over 6,000 feet above sea level, where streams are likely to stay cooler. Removing the dams will also lower water temperatures downstream, providing help to fish in the lower river system.

Despite these benefits, the orca-recovery plan notes only that dam removal will be addressed "elsewhere." Unfortunately, we can't find where that "elsewhere" is. The logical place to look would be in the federal government's recovery plan for salmon. But in the most recent draft of that plan, Snake River dam removal is not even considered for further study, much less as a potential action.

A new draft is due by May 5 (after its predecessors were struck down by the federal courts for violating the Endangered Species Act) - that's where we'll be looking next. The current version of the federal salmon plan doesn't even make any reference to southern resident orcas, a federally listed endangered species that the same agency is obligated to restore.

What we have here is a total disconnect. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for recovering both salmon and orcas. Its scientists have connected the dots. It's time for NOAA's decision-makers to put it together, too.

As it stands, the federal salmon plan won't get us where we need to be if we want a healthy population of southern resident orcas plying the waters of Puget Sound for generations to come. And it certainly won't do the job for Columbia Basin salmon, either.

When the final salmon plan is released in a few weeks, we will be watching closely to see whether it lays out a plan for real salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin. We ask Gov. Christine Gregoire and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to hold NOAA accountable to its mandate to protect and restore both orcas and salmon. Our leaders need to demand that NOAA take the necessary actions, including the removal of the Lower Snake River dams.

The alternative is to be honest about the result of inaction: that this crucial food source will never be restored and the orcas must somehow survive without it - if they can.

Kathy Fletcher is founder and executive director of People For Puget Sound.
Howard Garrett is founder and director of Orca Network and the author of "Orcas in Our Midst."
Connect the Dots to Save Orcas, Salmon
The Seattle Times, May 2, 2008

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