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Could breaching Snake River dams save Southern Resident orca?

J50 near Lime Kiln Point, San Juan Island, and with other females in her family on Aug. 11, 2018. (Photos by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

When Michelle Seidelman of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society first saw the Puget Sound’s Southern Resident orca whales 10 years ago, she described the spectacle as “magic.”

“They really have a way of just getting into your skin,” she told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross on Seattle’s Morning News.

RELATED: What scientists observed when they found ailing Southern Resident orca J50

Now Seidelman and her family feel such a bond with the whales that they know all of the Puget Sound orcas by name. This makes the Southern Residents’ health problems over a loss of Chinook salmon — brought to light this summer with the deaths of the dead orca calf and the adult female J50 — all the more devastating for Seidelman.

“For me, now, they’re like family — every time I lose one, it’s like losing a family member,” she said. “There’s a lot of grief that goes on in our household, and grief that goes on for, I think, thousands of us.”

It is this grief that spurs action. Through orca advocacy group Dam Sense, she has organized a rally for Friday, Oct. 5 at Portland’s Holladay City Park to push for the breach of the lower four dams on the Snake River. Seidelman said that this would allow the salmon to get through the dam and spawn, helping their population to increase. More Chinook salmon — the Southern Resident orcas’ main diet — means more food for the starving Southern Resident orca whales.

“We just need an area for those salmon to be able to start to spawn and start to bring the runs back,” Seidelman said.

The location of the rally is deliberate — Holladay Park sits directly across the street from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Northwestern Division and the Bonneville Power administration building. The Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power “are the ones that have the ability to make the decision to breach these dams,” Seidelman said.

It would just be “a matter of tractors moving the dirt, moving that earth, so the Snake can run free,” while leaving the concrete intact, according to Seidelman. This means that the project would cost less than many people believe, she argues.

Symbolic dams

Jason Colby, a professor of environmental history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and author of “Orca: How we Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator,” said that “taking down those dams in the mid- to long-term could potentially have a big impact on the number of Chinook salmon that are available.”

He pointed out, however, that the decision to dismantle the dams would not be simple, as “those dams are symbolic to people in Eastern Washington.”

Seidelman said that as it is, it costs taxpayers more to keep the dams going than it is worth.

“I don’t know why they’re fighting to keep them up … The future is definitely in solar and wind, not in hydro power,” Seidelman said.

Southern Resident orca and fishing

Even if the dams are breached and the salmon increase their numbers, it would still take two years for the southern resident Orcas to feel the impact in their food supply. Seidelman said that other measures will have to be taken to increase the orcas’ prey.

Colby called for “major restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing of Chinook salmon … on both sides of the border.” He noted that British Columbia’s Fraser River, which flows westward between the Canadian border and the City of Vancouver, has an even bigger impact on the Southern Resident orca whales than the Snake River.

“How do we help these rivers start to heal themselves and naturally regenerate these Chinook salmon runs?” he asked.

The draft report written by Governor Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, Colby noted, also recommended slowing down vessels traveling through the Salish Sea, limiting oil spills, and reducing contamination in Puget Sound waters. Over-fishing and development in a rapidly growing region have made the Salish Sea “an urban lake” for the orcas, Colby said.

“We have to weigh, what is the value of a whale, what is the value of these whales? … We do have to ask ourselves what we’re willing to give up in order to have something that’s become precious to us,” Colby said.

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