Puget Sound orca calf tragedy connected with Idaho salmon

A Puget Sound orca in late July brought the plight of endangered killer whales to the national and international spotlights when a grieving mother swam with her dead calf on her nose for a week or more.

The tragedy was broadcast widely, but one of the underlying causes of the decline of Puget Sound killer whales—the decline of Columbia and Snake river salmon—was practically nonexistent in those stories. 

An Aug. 2 letter to the editor in the Seattle Times began to hint at the underlying cause.

“This mother is performing a heroic service for all of us,” wrote Seattle resident Len Bordeaux. “In keeping her dead calf on the surface as she grieves, she is showing us just what we are doing with our polluting, depleting fish stocks and insensitivity to our fellow creatures.”

The relationship between orcas and salmon has long been established. Chinook salmon, in particular, contribute significantly to orca diets. As Salmon populations have plummeted, so have those of orcas. 

While the story about the orca is tragic, it’s also an opportunity to shed light on the core of the problem, which is that dams are killing a huge number of the Pacific Northwest’s salmon, and in turn starving orcas. 

A story published July 9 in The New York Times pointed out that the biggest contributing factor to the decline of orcas is likely the disappearance of big chinook salmon.

“They [Orcas] are chinook salmon specialists,” said Brad Hanson, team leader for research at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center here, part of NOAA, in an interview with the Times. “If they could, they would eat chinook salmon 24/7.” 

Hanson said orcas eat 30 chinook salmon per day. 

Salmon fuel ecosystems from the Pacific Ocean to small headwaters streams in Idaho, and everywhere in between. Historically, the Columbia River was the largest producer of salmon in the Northwest, and in that universe of rivers and streams, the Snake River and its abundant habitat in Idaho produced 70 percent of the salmon. Idaho was the mother lode of salmon populations, and it's still the mother lode of healthy salmon habitat in the Northwest today.

The problem is that four unnecessary dams on the lower Snake River block Idaho salmon from migrating between their natal streams and the ocean.

So far this year only 38,123 chinook salmon have arrived in Idaho, only 48 percent of the 10-year average return for the date. In fact, Idaho’s chinook salmon are poised to continue a four-years-and-counting trend of population declines. 

Steelhead are faring slightly worse. This year only 5,677 steelhead have returned to Idaho, only 46 percent of the 10-year average for the date.

Sockeye salmon, meanwhile, have just started to arrive in the Sawtooth Valley of central Idaho. Only 262 passed into Idaho. The 10-year average for the date is 1,067 fish.

Making matters worse, none of the above numbers focus on wild fish, which would constitute far less than 50 percent of each species' return. In order to recover wild salmon and remove them from Endangered Species Act protections, we’ll have to recover wild fish.

For chinook that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 wild fish annually. For steelhead it’s 90,000 wild fish annually. And for sockeye salmon it’s 2,500 wild fish annually. For some 20 to 30 years, we haven't even come close.

The bottom line in the context of a highly visible tragedy in Puget Sound is that problems for Idaho’s fish are also problems elsewhere. For decades, the cause of the decline of salmon in Idaho has been clear. Four dams on the lower Snake River are four dams too many--for Idaho's salmon and Puget Sound's revered killer whales.