If you grew up in the ‘90s, you probably know Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There,” the theme song of the 1993 film “Free Willy.” You may have watched the film in heartfelt wonder as a troubled youth made a connection with a wild creature, then fearlessly helped set Willy free.
This summer, millions watched a more heart-wrenching story play out as mother orca Tahlequah (J35) and her pod participated in a communal act of mourning for 17 days, carrying the body of her lifeless calf that passed away hours after its birth.
Tahlequah is a member of the Southern Resident population, a group of orcas that winter in the Puget Sound and travel along the West Coast of the United States and Canada. The Southern Residents are highly studied; scientists have even used dogs to sniff out their scat for research collection. Recent studies have yielded disturbing findings: the population has reached a thirty-year low with a count of only 75 individuals, and no successful births since 2015.
There are many factors testing the survival of these black and white creatures that aren’t so, well, black and white: rising ocean temperatures, toxins and disease, the cacophony of noise pollution, and what is arguably their single greatest threat: starvation. Chinook salmon from the spawning areas of the Snake and Columbia rivers are the greatest food source of Southern Residents. A healthy orca can consume up to 375 pounds of food daily — that is, if there’s enough to eat.
Nine species of Chinook salmon are protected under the endangered species act. Despite billions spent in salmon recovery, a population of 38,123 individuals from both hatchery and wild origin returned to Idaho to spawn this year. This year’s return is dangerously low; only 48 percent of the average 10 year return. The recovery goal to remove Chinook salmon from the endangered species list is a returning population of 80,000 adult wild origin salmon; in 2017, only 7,500 salmon of wild origin returned to Idaho.
The current salmon recovery effort takes many forms: restoring habitats; improving passage for fish at dams; collecting fish in tanks and driving them past said dams; tightening down on fishing and harvesting from industrial sources; and protecting fish from natural predators.
Many scientists, biologists, tribes and conservationists, however, believe that the best route is to clear the route. By removing man-made obstacles, primarily the four Snake River dams, there is hope of natural restoration by allowing resilient fish populations to return to their breeding grounds unhindered.
Removing the dams, however, is no simple task. The plight of Chinook salmon (and other fish) is a highly polarized issue that has ties in tribal fishing and land rights, agricultural economics and hydroelectric energy. Many tribes once gave up precious landscapes in a slighted trade for fishing rights, and are now no longer able to eat ancestral foods.
Farmers wonder how they will water crops without divergent dam water, or how they will ship their products without the dam barging system put in place decades ago. Additionally, hydroelectric energy created by the dams is built into the history and infrastructure of energy economies in the Pacific Northwest.
One outcome is certain: Chinook salmon populations will continue to decline, the Southern Resident orcas will continue to starve, and ecosystems surrounding these fish will continue to collapse if we don’t take action.
You can choose to “be there” by joining the conversation of salmon issues, lending your voice to free the Snake River from dams, and opposing HR 3144. Find more information, a prewritten letter and a fast route to the representative you need to contact via Save Our Salmon.