More Orca Deaths: Time for the Damn Dams to Go

Seattle — Washington. A solemn press conference was held yesterday by the Friday Harbor-based Center for Whale Research to reveal the loss of two more endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Ken Balcomb, the center’s executive director, and principal researcher announced last August that the orca J28, named Polaris, appeared “super-gaunt”and close to death. Her failure to survive, the researcher said, could impact her 7-month old calf, J54, named ‘Dipper’ by the public.

Noted as missing since October 19, J28 is estimated to have died in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, sometime between the 16th-18th October. Her calf J54 is believed to have followed her in death despite efforts by his sister J46 who had been catching and offering salmon to her mom and brother for several months. Final images of J54 show him covered in rake marks obtained during his sister’s efforts to hoist the young calf to the surface when he was in delirium.

While reading an obituary to J28, Balcomb, who was flanked by retired Civil Engineer Jim Waddell from the Army Corps of Engineers, and former SeaWorld trainer and Blackfish cast member Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, spoke of the “endangered icons we’re about to lose.”

The Southern Residents face immense obstacles in their quest for survival. Contaminants and pollution are impacting successful breeding, and with salmon recovery failing abysmally, a severe shortage of food has contributed to the loss of three animals this year. Only 80 residents remain and despite achieving endangered status in 2005, they are failing to recover.

Salmon stocks are on the verge of extinction. Image: Dam Sense.org

Salmon stocks are on the verge of extinction. Image: Dam Sense.org

Waddell, of Dam Sense.org spoke of the necessity of getting salmon to the Southern Residents quickly. Chinook salmon account for 75-90 percent of SRKWs’ diet, yet wild salmon stocks are close to extinction. Blocked by four lower Snake River dams, claims of record runs the last several years by the Northwest Regional offices of the Corps, Bonneville Power Administration, and NOAA Fisheries Service, have proven false.

Five times now, a court has ruled that under the Endangered Species Act the feds’ plan for salmon recovery is inadequate. Fall Chinook are threatened, spring and summer Chinook are threatened, steelhead are threatened and sockeye salmon are endangered, the highest possible ESA listing.

Dr. Jeffrey Ventre told Dolphin Project:

Unpublished NOAA data, based on tracking tags, has shown that the Southern Resident orcas spend about 20% of their time waiting for Chinook salmon at or near the mouth of the Columbia River; fish that simply aren’t arriving. This lack of fish has been attributed by governmental studies to be due to, in large part, to the four deadbeat dams on the Lower Snake River, which are a rip off to tax payers, getting us 15 cents to every tax dollar spent.

Ventre also explained that the construction of the lower 4 Snake River dams in the 1960s and 1970s correspond precisely with SeaWorld’s collection of orcas in the area. “Because SeaWorld removed 50-60 members at the same time as the dam build out — when the whales tried to recover (from 70 members) they ran into a brick wall. There was not enough food/calories to feed them.”

Ventre added that when combined with secondary effects like chemical pollutants and increased shipping noise, the challenges for these whales grew exponentially. The greatest detriment to these animals, he noted, is the lack of food. “No fish, no blackfish,” he said.

Despite a massive public outcry and persistent calls for government action, local and federal authorities remain hesitant to act. Government agencies in charge of the dams and salmon recovery appear content to ask for more studies while Washington’s senators and governor, appear inclined to look the other way rather than rock the boat in an election year.

“We cannot do more studies,” said Waddell at yesterday’s press conference as he pushed for immediate action on breaching the dams. USACE, the former engineer explained, has the power to decommission any failing project. With millions of the taxpayer’s money already spent on failed salmon recovery and with four dams that cost more to operate than what they recoup, it’s time for these dams to go.

“The only thing stopping it is political will,” Waddell concluded.

Explain that to J46 who fought so valiantly to save her mother and 10-month-old baby brother.

Want to help? See here.

Featured Image: Polaris J28 (Center) with Oreo J22, and Doublestuf J34. 2014. Photo: Elizabeth Batt.

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt
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