Dear Governor Inslee and Orca Recovery Task Force members:
Southern Resident orcas are critically endangered and bold actions are needed to address the three primary threats limiting their recovery: a lack of prey (Chinook salmon), vessel noise, and pollution. We urge you to quickly develop meaningful policy and program recommendations that will help recover Southern Resident orcas. To prevent the extinction of this unique orca population, it is imperative that the Task Force makes recommendations to:
- Prioritize and accelerate salmon habitat restoration and fish-barrier removal projects that will most benefit orcas.
- Support near-term actions to increase Chinook salmon productivity and survival in the Columbia River Basin by maximizing beneficial spill at the lower Snake and Columbia River dams.
- Support actions to remove the four lower Snake River dams to quickly benefit Chinook salmon survival and recovery.
- Increase and secure funding for pollution prevention and clean-up programs.
- Identify and commit to meeting an ecologically relevant noise reduction goal with immediate near-term actions to reduce harmful noise.
- Reduce the risk of an oil spill and improve safety measures for oil transportation.
The Southern Resident orcas’ primary prey source is Chinook salmon and many West Coast Chinook populations are threatened or endangered. It is important for the Task Force to keep in mind what is known about the seasonal feeding and migration patterns of these orcas, for though they are often associated with Puget Sound, they spend most of their time foraging off the outer coast. For example, in winter and early spring, Southern Resident orcas frequently forage off the mouth of the Columbia River on returning Columbia and Snake River spring Chinook. The National Marine Fisheries Service has stated that perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for these orcas has been the decline of salmon in the Columbia River basin.
To reverse the decline of these orcas, salmon restoration efforts need to target strategic populations where there is high recovery potential like Snake River spring Chinook. Science indicates that the best way to improve wild salmon production in the Columbia River basin is to remove the four lower Snake River dams and increase water spill over the other dams. Increasing Chinook salmon will help buoy these whales in the face of other threats.
To save Southern Resident orcas from extinction, recovery efforts must be guided by an overall goal of growing and managing healthy, resilient, connected, and functional ecosystems. Continued and expanded reliance on technologies and human interventions – rather than on functional ecosystems – will be unlikely to meet the needs of salmon, orcas, or people.