Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dams and whales

-- by Dave

It's become increasingly obvious in recent years that one of the major obstacles facing the recovery of the Puget Sound's endangered killer whales has been the serious decline in their food supply -- primarily chinook salmon -- particularly in the winter months, when chinook are at their scarcest in these waters.

The orcas historically spend those months seeking prey primarily along the continental shelf of the Pacific Coast, ranging as far south as northern California and as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands. And historically, their primary source of chinook along that range has been salmon from the Columbia River -- some 80-90 percent of salmon in that habitat used to originate from the Columbia.

However, those runs are now at about 1 percent of their historical levels. Of course, the bounty of salmon used to be so immense that there never was a food problem for the orcas before. Now, they're scraping to get by. And four dams on the Snake River (the largest and longest of the Columbia's tributaries) that have no fish ladders and turn the free-flowing river (an attribute necessary for fingerlings) into a long series of relatively stagnant reservoirs are probably the biggest single cause of the problem.

I explored this in some detail last year in a Seattle Weekly piece that predicted that scientists would soon start pushing the government to recognize that dams are playing a major role in the decline of the killer whale population.

Sure enough, exactly that has come to pass:
Leading Northwest scientists and orca advocates are urging NOAA Fisheries to consider removal of the four lower Snake River dams in order to protect endangered Puget Sound orca populations that need Columbia-Snake River salmon as a critical food source.

“Restoring Columbia River Chinook salmon is the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future survival of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales," said Dr. Rich Osborne, research associate with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, WA. “We cannot hope to restore the killer whale population without also restoring the salmon upon which these whales have depended for thousands of years. Their futures are intricately linked.”

The comments from the six prominent orca scientists, delivered in a letter to Northwest members of Congress and NOAA regional administrator Robert Lohn, came in response to the Oct. 31 release of a new draft Biological Opinion from NOAA Fisheries for Columbia-Snake River salmon management. Salmon advocates say the new plan, the result of a court-ordered rewrite of an earlier, illegal 2004 federal salmon plan, fails to do enough to recover imperiled salmon in the seven-state Columbia-Snake river basin, and ignores altogether the four dams on the lower Snake River that do the most harm to these fish.

“History will not be very forgiving of the resource managers who failed in their responsibilities to these icons of the Pacific Northwest, Chinook and orca,” said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research.

“The draft plan relies heavily on actions that science and time have proven will not restore these fish to the levels necessary for self-sustaining populations of salmon, or abundant enough to provide a healthy food resource for these killers whales,” said Dr. David Bain, a killer whale biologist at Friday Harbor Labs. “Not only are salmon from the Columbia River an important historic food source, recovered abundant salmon in this river are an indispensable requirement for the future recovery of Southern Residents.”

“The new Federal salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers is no better than previous plans in providing access to the basin’s best remaining salmon habitat in the upper reaches of the Snake River,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder of the Orca Network. “The resulting declining salmon runs have a very real impact on the 88 endangered southern resident orcas that depend on these fish, as they have for centuries. As the salmon disappear, the orcas go hungry.”

“The best science tells us,” Garrett added, “that to revitalize Snake River salmon, we'll need to bypass the dams that block fish passage, and that dam removal, combined with a variety of economic investments, will bring benefits to upriver communities in eastern Washington as well as to Puget Sound.”

You can read the text of the letter from the scientists here.

Of course, this is a significant political problem. The conservative eastern half of the state, having been fed a steady diet of Limbaughesque accusations that urbanites on the western half are working to "destroy their way of life," have come to identify the Snake River dams as a symbol of that struggle, as it were. As I noted in the Weekly piece:
Salmon advocates like Save Our Wild Salmon have argued that tearing down the dams is the most sensible solution, since it would return that portion of the river to a free-flowing state and give both smolt and spawners a fighting chance of success. They argue that the economic costs can be overcome, pointing out that replacing the barges with a revamped rail-transportation system and simply lowering the current irrigation pumps would cost a fraction of the current barging system. Moreover, they point to larger economic benefits for the region, particularly the economic boon that could be realized from recreation.

These arguments, however, have carried little weight with Eastern Washingtonians, who have come to see the dams as emblematic of "their way of life," and thus to be defended at all costs. When the breaching was first proposed in 1999, pro-dam rallies were held in various communities at which the rhetoric became high-pitched. Leading the way were top Republican officials, including then–U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who warned of various miseries that breaching would inflict.

"We are not going to allow a few Seattle ultraliberal environmental zealots to destroy what took generations to build," proclaimed then–state Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, in Richland.

"In case you don't understand the urgency of this, think about this: The bulldozers are coming," said state Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland. "The gun is at our heads, and we need to act right now before they pull the trigger."

Since 2001, however, the Bush administration has opposed any breaching program, reverting to a reliance on barging. A federal judge's May 2005 ruling that the barging program is failing, and demanding the government re-examine its salmon- recovery progress, was greeted with warnings from the Dry Side that doing so had better not put dam removal back on the table: "Changes may need to be made, but the dams are going nowhere," said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, the Republican who represents Eastern Washington's 4th District.

It's becoming clear that it will take real leadership and courage at the state level -- particularly from Gov. Christine Gregoire -- to save the whales: someone willing to stand up to the knee-jerk, uninformed and myopic objections of eastern Washington farmers. And unfortunately, neither she nor her predecessor have demonstrated any such thing.

On the other hand, there's Gregoire's Republican opponent in the looming 2008 race: Dino Rossi. His campaign has been the major beneficiary of the Building Industry Association of Washington -- which was the entity that filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against even listing the orcas as endangered. We can probably guess where killer whales stand in Rossi's list of priorities.

No comments: